Rhymefest.jpgIt was Sprite’s old ad campaign that coined the phrase “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything.” Well, in the case of Rhymefest, his thirst for hip-hop immortality holds paramount over any “backpacker” label. Proving that you can’t judge a book by its cover, the Chi-Town native loads his debut LP, Blue Collar, with clever punch lines and oodles of personality that defy expectations.

Sticking to the ethos of the album’s title, ’Fest speaks on the everyday struggles of the common man throughout. Songs like the Emile-produced “All I Do” has him breaking down his troubled upbringing in poverty before emphatically stating, “I don’t care about a deal/I’ve been poor all my life.” Similarly, “Devil’s Pie” finds Mr. Blue Collar admitting, “I know I’m ahead of my time, but behind on my rent” over Mark Ronson’s chopped guitar-riff sample of the Strokes’ “Someday.”

Witty off-cuff wordplay aside, Rhymefest also possesses a wicked pen game. On the Cool & Dre—and Ronson-produced “All Girls Cheat,” he weaves a heart-wrenching story of betrayal, while singer Mario does his best Isley Brothers impersonation. And the introspective “Bullet” vividly details everything from the thoughts of a soldier in Iraq to a high school harlot gettin’ burned.

The tipping point, however, comes when ’Fest unsuccessfully delves into commercial fodder like the Latin-flavored “Fever” and the Kanye West–featured single “Brand New.” Although sonically sound, the clubcentric content clashes with his overall poor man’s blues theme. These digressions can easily be overlooked, as the rest of the album is filled with gems like the Just Blaze–fueled thumper “Dynomite (Going Postal)” and the aspirational “More,” where ’Fest admits, “It’s hard to get respect when you’re less than thug.” With Blue Collar, Rhymefest sidesteps thug life for real life and proves that image is nothing when it comes to making good music.—SEAN A. MALCOLM