By Randy Wagstaff
The concept album exists, or hypothetically could exist, in every music genre. The only requirement is that a universal theme or story be integrated into every song on the album, creating a cohesive artistic statement. In hip-hop, the concept can be as complicated as Prince Paul’s mini hip-hopera A Prince Among Thieves (a young man named Tariq enters the world of drug dealing in order to make enough money to record a demo tape for RZA), or as simple as MF Doom’s Mm..Food (food). Regardless of the content, if the beats, lyrics, and hooks are there, the album’s going to be a success.
Wordsmith, an independent rapper out of Baltimore, is no stranger to the concept album. His last release, King Noah, was created as a message to his young son, and the deeply personal thematic content reverberated throughout the LP. A year later, Wordsmith has come out with yet another concept album, The Blue Collar Recital, which deals with a day in the life of the average working-class citizen, starting at 5am in the morning and ending with some sweet summer loving.
On “It’s 5am Smell The Roses,” Wordsmith starts off by half-rapping some spoken word very effectively, setting the theme of staying positive in the face of negativity that will follow him throughout the rest of the album: “Watching through the window of a fifth floor apartment/It’s rough making a living, no one’s giving red carpets.” “Living Life Check To Check” is just as universally relatable as the concept of the album itself; here, Wordsmith outlines the average person’s basic desires: “A little money to pay my bills/A little money for one hot meal/A little money so I can rest/A little money to ease my stress.” But the next several songs are all more or less the same, perhaps as a result of trying to recreate the mundane nature of day-to-day work; however, just like working a nine-to-five, one can’t help but be bored by the redundancy of it all. Wordsmith doesn’t change his rhyme schemes or cadence much through the first half of the album, so by the sixth song, you’re checking the clock every 20 seconds wondering if it’s time for lunch yet; true enough to a day’s work, when lunch finally arrives in the form of “Lunch Break The Afternoon Takeover,” the result is about as fulfilling as the bologna and cheese sandwich you’ve had every day for the last three months. Songs like “When In Doubt Give Your Best” are true to Wordsmith’s thematic concept, but end up regurgitating positive messages with all the nuance of a self-help book that tells you to “try harder” and “be better:” “Frustrated at times, but I never ever quit/ 110% that’s it, that’s what you better give.”
The Blue Collar Recital is so true to its concept that its best song is actually “Happy Hour The Universal Blackout,” in which Wordsmith steps away from rapping over live instrumentation, choosing a darker synth beat instead. Here, he complicates his schemes with some internal rhyming, a welcome change from the much more commonplace A/B/A/B schemes that have so far permeated the album. The result is energetic and fresh, and reminds the listener that Wordsmith is much more versatile than he’s been able to showcase thus far. This versatility is on full display on the albums penultimate song, “I Bet The Record Skips,” which is smooth and sexy because Wordsmith finally appears to be having fun: “I’m into hardcore, she like to bite/role play, she dim the lights.”
The concept itself isn’t of much importance when it comes to a concept album, but it can ultimately make or break an LP if not treated properly. In the case of The Blue Collar Recital, the concept is given too much importance throughout the first half, and the creativity of the music is not allowed to shine, resulting in songs that are generic and ultimately boring. Wordsmith misses out on the opportunity to mix in some fun and humour, which would be a welcome addition to songs about topics as trivial as sitting in traffic or having lunch. A large part of the album that was meant for the “average worker” is too simple, as if it was dumbed down, an idea that, if true, would be quite insulting. Like a blue collar worker, when Wordsmith steps outside of the prosaic and really goes for it, the result is creative and interesting. Unfortunately, too much of Wordsmith’s performance on The Blue Collar Recital is guilty of the opposite, and the Baltimore rapper’s most recent offering ends up being as ordinary as another day at the office.