(Rurally Urban Records, 2-CD)
The increasingly — and to some, surprisingly — vibrant Vermont hip-hop scene gets a little more diverse with the arrival of a new collective, Rurally Urban Records. And though they may not yet boast the same name cachet as the state’s reigning hip-hop trinity — The Aztext, VT Union and GTD — judging from the label’s opening salvo, The Rise Above It EP from Burlington-based 22-year-old MC Mertz  (aka Robert Mertz), they seem well on their way to tagging their own space on the hip-hop graffiti wall in the eight-oh-two.
The disc gets off to a suspect start with “About That Time.” A sort of self-help hip-hop guide, the tune rather clunkily espouses the virtues of stick-to-it-iveness. The gist: You should stick to it. Certainly, that’s a valuable lesson. And the relatively recent trend of positivity has been a welcome development in underground hip-hop. But something about Mertz’s lyrical flow fails to deliver an appropriate level of Tony Robbins-esque inspiration. The culprit is lines such as, “Practice. That’s what it takes to make perfect. / Focus your mind on your purpose and work for it. / Don’t wait, second guess or hesitate. / Negative thoughts will fuck with your whole mind state.” Duly noted.
Mertz recovers nicely on the following track, “Weakness.” Though he treads on familiar ground, instead of preaching, he confesses. The change of approach is vastly more effective and drives his point home with surprising power.
“Resin” is next and features contributions from Rurally Urban Records honcho Aleck Woog. Following some nifty cuts via DJ Rico and simple, synth-y beats, the two trade lines with casual bravado. Though they might not blow you away with linguistic acrobatics à la The Aztext, the contrast between each MC’s style is entertaining. Woog’s light, laid-back flow is a nice complement to Mertz’s deliberate, full-bodied tone.
The rest of the EP’s nine tracks are similarly hit or miss. Mertz is at his best when he “shows” instead of “tells.” He can be an effective storyteller, using personal anecdotes to relate larger points. But he stumbles when he confuses the stage for a pulpit — as is often the critical failing of “higher-consciousness” music. Leave the preaching to the preachers and join the choir.
Though not without the flaws typical in a freshman effort, Mertz’s solo debut is ultimately a satisfying appetizer. And as a starting point, it bodes well for the future of Vermont’s latest entrants into the hip-hop fold.