So normally I don't review records on this BLOG, but I had some special circumstances. Rhymefest, via a MySpace Bulletin, offered an advance copy of his new mixtape to anyone who promised to write a review of it. Well, here's that review.
Anyone who knows me knows that my 2007, musically, was dominated by The Hood Internet, just like Rhymefest's Blue Collar heated up my 2006. And one thing I heard someone say about the Hood that I think is really indicative of where hip hop is right now is "More people would listen to hip hop if it sounded more like this." Which is perhaps an indicator that rap is in a lot of ways really insular as a genre. Why do people say they listen to "everything but rap and country?" This isn't some snotty attempt to push some pro-indie rock agenda. No, it's a reflection on a genre that's still in its adolescence. What's been exciting on the rap scene in the last couple of years? Kanye sampling Daft Punk. Ohmega Watts working with Mr. Scruff. Rhymefest and Mark Ronson repurposing the Strokes. Hip Hop has to start looking outward instead of inward for ideas, work toward a musical revolution to complement the societal revolution. It might sound like mainstreaming the sound, "selling out," but with hip hop, you can change the sound and keep the message - the same way the Hood recontextualizes some of these tracks. Maybe change the attitude, maybe change the intensity or the delivery, but never the message.
So I've been babbling on for however many damn words about a perceived creative crossroads in hip hop. What's this have to do with Man in the Mirror, the new Rhymefest mixtape? Man in the Mirror is the Rhymefest & Mark Ronson tribute album to Michael Jackson. And who changed the game more than Michael Jackson? They're calling it a mixtape, and it does seem to go by pretty quickly, especially given how many tracks are just extended skits, but the tracks are high quality from front to back - if this is how El Che ends up sounding, I'll be a happy man.
The two are an interesting pair - Fest does some creative editing on a few audio tracks, creating "conversations" with MJ. You've got two interesting characters there - Michael, an embattled musical icon, one of the all-time greats but a few steps over the line of weird. And you've got Rhymefest, critically acclaimed, accomplished, responsible for Jesus Walks, one of the most ambitious and exciting figures in hip hop today, but he still hasn't broken through commercially. Michael practically invented modern pop music, transforming the Motown sound that the Jackson 5 embodied into the biggest selling album of all time. I get the impression that Rhymefest wants to do the same thing for Rap.
On "Breakadawn," one of the album's highlights, Fest paints both he and Michael as trailblazers - a pretty big boast for a rapper whose first album peaked at #61 on the Billboard 200. Fest won a Grammy before his album dropped, Michael sold 50 mil. Fest spoke on hip hop affairs with David Cameron in British Parliament, MJ got knighted. Fest cheerfully concedes defeat as only he can.
What's great about anything Rhymefest puts out is that he radiates personality and charisma. He's a funny dude - the skits are hilarious, especially when he edits himself into accusing Michael of passing gas in the studio. He's got a magnetism to him that is present in just about every track - the same earnest humor that made Blue Collar so refreshing.
Rhymefest is the perfect hip hop everyman, a down-to-earth guy who doesn't let his ego overshadow every track. So it's ironic that this album is as much about him as it is about Michael Jackson. It's a portrait of where Rhymefest has been and where he's going. There's some reflection on where he's been, all he's done - for a rapper whose audience isn't as big as it ought to be, he's accomplished a lot. But there's a lot to get done.
Rhymefest is perhaps the most ambitious rapper in the game. I'm not talking about the Jay-Z sort, a financial ambition, or the Kanye West sort, who's always struggling to top himself, or even the Public Enemy sort, seeking to change the world. Rhymefest could aspire to any one of those things. But his goal seems to be somehow reinventing hip hop - he derides ringtone rap and worries about being taken seriously in the hood without talking about shooting people and selling dope. On Blue Collar, he declared to the world that he wanted to tell a different story, the real story of the urban experience, that more people are waiting at the bus stop to go to work than selling drugs on any given corner. He's got one criminally overlooked classic album under his belt and now a mixtape where he meets the master and tells him, "I'm next."
The whole album feels like an event, more than just a mixtape that Rhymefest dropped to hold over fans waiting for El Che. While it's primarily an album about Fest, his update of a classic Ghostface track and his collaboration with Talib Kweli both bring solid verses that keep the album flowing. The disk never feels like a tribute to Michael Jackson as hosted by Rhymefest, but the guest contributions take the album on a different route if only briefly. I'm not complaining, though: who doesn't love Ghostface?
It'd be stupid to try to cover all the highlights, but I did want to throw some attention real quick to his almost child-like triumph at the end of "No Sunshine," where he boasts that he could give this record to the "biggest dope dealer in world, and he'd LOVE it!" There's the goal: Fest wants to be everything to everyone, he wants to stay positive but stay hood at the same time, to be a crossover icon but not branded as a sellout, and he's what really carries it through. I'm not sure anyone but him could do it this well (then again, what do I know about hood?).
I'm going to end this on the same point as I began - the beats. For my money, Mark Ronson is one of the best producers around today, and he shines on Man in the Mirror. The album could have easily been Rhymefest rapping over "Beat It," but it ends up being so much more ambitious than that - there's some solid use of some MJ interview tracks on Mike the Mentor, what starts as a skit but turns into a song about what it is to be black. Among the most inspired beats is "Foolin' Around", a classic Fest song that could be a sequel to "All Girls Cheat." Another is the title track, "Man in the Mirror" - fairly unchanged from the original MJ track, but the contrast between Fest's verses and the original MJ chorus is really effective as a closer to the album. It seems like Michael Jackson is mostly forgotten but for Thriller and for being Kind of Weird, but he does have a bit of a laid back jazzy quality to him in a lot of the tracks on this record. Maybe with Kanye sampling PYT on Graduation we're due for a resurgence of MJ in hip hop, and Rhymefest proves that you can't get a much better sample.
The only real problem is that the album was probably shorter than this review. I mean, who gives a shit, no complaints here. If it was much longer, he'd probably have to sell it. But the album reminds us that Fest can deliver. And it did it's job - J Records can't get its shit together soon enough.
It should come as no surprise that I, as a person who is a fan of Smart People, endorse Barack Obama for president in 2008. I'm confident he's significantly smarter than anyone else running. Enough has been made of his vague promises to change the Washington atmosphere, but his specific plans on just standard governmental business is just fascinating.
I have, however, pledged not to make this a politics blog so much as a political history blog. About Presidents.
With that in mind, I'd like to direct you to the following piece Nightline did on Barack Obama.
There's a moment at the end where the anchor mentions that the Clinton campaign has already released a rebuttal to the interview, which they hadn't yet seen in full. The precise quote was "Considering that Senator Obama was a state senator just three years ago, he is the last person to be questioning anyone's experience. If he is elected, he would have less experience than any American President of the 20th Century."
Hold the fuck on.
The first thing I thought when I heard that was "Woodrow Fucking Wilson" and I immediately darted off to Wikipedia to confirm my suspicion. Now, Obama has talked a lot about how he has the "right kind" of experience, even if it's not necessarily enough. But let's see if we can talk about the experience question - in the modern, dominant, and embattled presidency of the 20th Century, how much experience does an aspiring President traditionally have?
Well, first, what counts as experience? Barack is keen to point out that he has more time in elected office than either of his chief competitors - Hillary Clinton will have eight years of Senate experience by the time the 2008 election rolls around, John Edwards will have had six. Barack will have had four, but eight years in state government before that. Of course, Hillary spent twenty years as the first lady of somewhere or other, but are we counting that? I don't think that's a position in the constitution.
If we're to play against Barack, we'll say that a position in national government, whether it means you're in the legislative branch, appointed by the president, or, what the hell, married to the president counts. Let's also say that having an executive position over any other government institution is also a reasonable way to have experience - say, Mayor, Governor, or if we're feeling salty, the Chairperson of the County Board (Just a few more years, Todd Stroger, and we'll elect you president!). And let's not count anything in state government, because that is obviously riding with training wheels.
The first President we'll look at is Teddy Roosevelt. War hero, right? He started as a state assemblyman and was on the United States Civil Service Commission from 1888 to 1895. Does that count? I'm not sure how important that was. Kind of a low level appointment, let's put that on the same level as State Senator, along with his experience as the president of the board of the New York City Police Commissioners for the two years after that.
T.R. was appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1897, and promptly resigned it in 1898 to serve in the Volunteer Cavalry in the Spanish-American War. He was in the military for less than a year, and was elected as Governor of New York in 1898. In 1900 he was forced upon McKinley as a running mate by Thomas C. Platt, became Vice President, served as VP for six months and then McKinley was shot and he inherited the Presidency.
So Teddy had, by our standards, about... four years of experience in National Government? Are we counting Military experience? Shit, why not.
William Howard Taft! Mediocre president, superb Chief Justice. Two years as the Governor-General of the Phillipines, and four as the Secretary of War. Filipinos loved him, though.
Next up was Woodrow Wilson, who I mentioned previously. He was the President of Princeton University for eight years, and then the governor of New Jersey for two. And while I respect his time as the president of a university, doesn't count. Two years. Didn't he lead us through World War I or something? I hear he was a racist. Fucking Wilson.
Harding had six years in the Senate, and two years as the Lieutenant Governor of Ohio. Silent Cal Coolidge was mayor for two years, Lieutenant Governor for three, Real Governor for two more, and Vice President for two before becoming president on accident. Hoover was head of the Food Administration for four years and Secretary of Commerce for eight. FDR was Assistant Secretary of the Navy for seven years and Governor for four. Truman was a Senator for ten years and VP for four months. Eisenhower had a bunch of important military positions for about eleven years that I don't really want to list. Kennedy spent fourteen years in congress, LBJ for 12 with two as VP. Nixon had four in the house, two in the Senate, and eight as VP. Ford spent an uneventful 24 years in the House of Representatives, including eight years as minority leader, and then less than one as VP. Carter spent four years as Governor, Reagan eight. Bush I was a representative for four years, ambassador to the UN for 2, head of the RNC for 1, head of the CIA for 1, and VP for eight. Clinton was governor for 12 years, GWB for 6.
What a lovely list! Now, I'm not entirely sure how we're sorting this list. What better prepares you for the presidency? Being President of a University? Serving in the Military? But one could argue that Wilson's greatest triumphs were leading the US through war and his postwar efforts at a new world order, or that Eisenhower's greatest legacy was his effective management of a nation in peacetime, with the Space Race, Social Security, the Interstate Highways and the nearly unrivaled prosperity. Is legislative experience less effective than executive? Truman and Kennedy did pretty well for themselves. Does a long, illustrious career make a glorious president? Nixon and Ford seem to be the exception to that rule. And of course, Wilson and Roosevelt, routinely ranked in the Near Great category of presidents (around #5 or #6) had less experience than Obama.
So what's the point? It's hard to tell what experience an effective President needs; it often seems to be associated with the historical circumstances of the era - General Wesley Clark could have been the spiritual successor to Ike had he run in a different era. Eisenhower and Wilson embraced their roles as outsiders in their successful presidencies. George Bush Sr. did a pretty good job in the early 90s despite being a longtime government insider (admittedly in a time where something like that was more of an asset - he handled the Gulf War and the breakup of the USSR well). One could pretty easily argue that now is the time for an outsider, given the rampant power abuses and corruption of this administration, while led by a supposed outsider but infested with longtime political institutions.
Does Barack Obama have the experience to be President?
No, he needs to be appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. But maybe after that.