(A.S.A.P. Entertainment, digital download)
The evolution of Vermont hip-hop continues, as more and more young emcees and deejays take to local stages and studios. Long the province of a choice handful, the genre — and, by extension, an entire culture — has truly taken root, ushering in a new generation of rhyme-slinging talent. At the forefront of that youth movement is MC Colby Stiltz . The Vermont-born rapper spent his formative years in Portland, Maine, before returning to the 802 in 2008. He continued to hone his skills at rap battles around the city, eventually hooking up with the dearly departed VT Union  — he even made a cameo on that hip-hop collective’s final album. Now considered one of the Queen City’s rising talents, Stiltz unleashes his debut album, Escaping Insanity.
“Be Like Me” opens the recording with requisite bravado. It takes serious cojones for a virtually unknown artist to lead a debut album by suggesting others yearn to walk in his or her footsteps. Stiltz suffers no shortage of confidence, even when it’s not entirely justified. The song is among the album’s weakest, and the rapper’s smooth, streetwise flow is often potholed by clumsy wordplay. It’s not an auspicious start.
But Stiltz rebounds immediately on the title track, a searching, emotionally charged, autobiographical rumination on the perils of drug life. Hailing from Vermont (or Maine) will likely never boost one’s street cred. But certain problems are universal, including addiction. Stiltz combines a casually raw delivery with clever, heartfelt phrases to create a stirring and, more importantly, believable treatise on substance abuse.
“Freak Show Feat. Question then MC” showcases his unique creative bent. Over slow beats and breezy, fun-house accordion, the MC indulges his inner carnival barker. The result could be an outtake from Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, if reimagined by the Ringling Brothers. It is the album’s artistic high-water mark, suggesting Stiltz possesses creative ambition well beyond that of the average chest-thumping rapper. If he can figure out a way to consistently tap into that mindset, he’ll truly stand out from a chorus of soundalike MCs.
“Welcome to the Game” is another highlight. Where earlier cuts, such as the limp “After Party,” pander to the mindless party-rap set, here Stiltz reveals far more tact and cunning. The song is a razor-sharp evisceration of the music industry. But Stiltz disguises his caustic observations with playful flow patterns, achieving a rare balance between entertainment and enlightenment. This is a glimpse at Colby Stiltz’s true, tantalizing potential.
Though not without flaws, Escaping Insanity is a fine appetizer and an exciting portent of big things on the local hip-hop horizon.
Catch Colby Stiltz at the Monkey House in Winooski this Friday and again Saturday in support of Akrobatik at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge.