Surprisingly “The Great Chicago Fire” was actually released a year before Kanye West blew up the Chicago rap scene with the now-classic “The College Dropout” album. The reason I was taken back by that mainly is because my preconception was that Yusef is known by association. While that remains somewhat true, the debut album from this street poet features the likes of Juice, Twista, Common, Carl Thomas and Ye, himself, so the historical context gives us more of an idea that the label hounds were trying to push Malik before the Windy City’s hip-hop resurgence.
If you are anything like me–incredibly compulsive–you look at the unknown artists that your favorites collaborate with and then delve deeper into their catalogue. Truth be told, this is rarely fruitful. While I heard “Wouldn’t You Like to…” well before it hit the “Coach Carter” soundtrack in 2005; I was previously unaware of the track’s first appearance on “The Great Chicago Fire.” Malik probably comes off the weakest on this, his most popular track, so I pretty much wrote him off at the time. After listening to this LP, I think I may have been too quick to judge.
One thing that will throw off those who enjoy popular rap music is that Malik Yusef is more of a spoken word type, so his flow comes across as more talking over a beat than really rapping. Saul Williams is famous for this form of poetry which also crossed boundaries into the mainstream on “Def Jam’s Def Poetry” on HBO. A listener is likely to love or hate the style.
Ironically, the spoken word is indicative of most of the album, but when Malik strays more squarely into a traditional rap, in terms of production and structure, it comes across far more palatable. “Get Ready,” featuring Carl Thomas, for instance, is a highlight of the album. A lot of that has to do with the super smoothed out chorus by the R&B superstar and the silky Dupee’ Productions cut, which feels like a laid back Snoop track with handclaps. Even today, if this was released widely for radio-play it would assumedly make Yusef a more household name. It seems Malik realized this since the album features a remix of the joint to close out the album that offers a hollow drum pattern to energize the track for a small collective of rappers to get a chance to drop a few bars atop the beat.
Of course, as a poet, Yusef’s primary focus is usually about deeper subject matters found on tracks like; “Conversations with God,” Revolutionary Words,” and “Woman Where is Your Soul.” The latter examines shallow women that use their body to get ahead in life and the downfall related to that lifestyle. This is exemplified with lines like, “Make sure you make your money and speed your ass out of that pole position/I find you vaguely attractive although so much of your soul is missing,” coupled with, “I don’t think that a real nigga is impressed/the fact that you have fake eyes, fake nails and fake breasts.” It is a fair depiction of how our culture has used women as a commodity.
“Auto-Eroticism” is a journey into the sultry world of sex. It is unlike most of the crude rap songs about the act; rather, the slow snare and soft instrumentals are more akin to a good D’Angelo song, as are the descriptive lyrics. He manages to use his words in a way that are accessible to the general public by referencing popular movies and movie stars, for instance, “No Miss Daisy I just want to drive you crazy,” and “I love it when were cruising’ like Tom and Penelope.” It is nice to see an occasional artistic interpretation of making love.
Still, the addition of Common and a pre-auto tune Kanye on “Wouldn’t You Like To…” is the main draw to “The Great Chicago Fire”–for good reason. It is a simple song that offers great verses and Yeezy’s trademark drum pattern. It is definitely recommended for those who have still not heard it.
The few tracks like “Struggle,” which has the star of the album speaking abrasively through some kind of distortion devise like a static-infested radio station, are distracting. Luckily, these annoyances are few and far between.
“The Great Chicago Fire” by Malik Yusef is an album that still make not be completely a typical rap fans’ cup of tea. However, the disc is far less trying than most spoken word albums given that it does not come across as too preachy and it does not sacrifice its wonderfully organic vibe. Yusef remains a pioneer in the art of spoken word poetry.