(Self-released, digital download)
When Colby Stiltz moved out of Vermont in 2012, he left a tall, extremely energetic hole in the local hip-hop scene. During his Green Mountain tenure, he was everywhere, always smiling, always hilarious and always supportive of new talent. So it may come as a shock to many that Stiltz was grappling with some ferocious personal demons the whole time. That struggle provides a foundation for his new album, Down to Earth. Stiltz's tribulations led to a most unexpected transformation: He has evolved from stoner-rap comedy into a downright spiritual, adult voice of reason.
That doesn't mean the party stopped, of course. Nearly every track here has at least a line or two proclaiming the virtues of (medical!) marijuana, and at no point does Stiltz preach. That's the best approach for his message, balancing hard-won life experience with a youthful and infectious optimism. Even when he's frank about issues such as depression and drug addiction, he never gets within a million miles of being judgmental. "This is consciousness, mixed with going stupid," as he puts it on "Vibe."
Stiltz speaks from the heart on almost every track here, trading in the punch-line pyrotechnics of his earlier work for a more deliberate, relatable approach. The sole exception is "Keep It on Lock," an unambiguous banger from local super-producer Sky Splitter that showcases some tongue-twisting flows and a feature from prolific BTV ex-pat Learic. (Spoiler alert: Learic utterly kills it.)
The emotional core of the album is an autobiographical two-song sequence laying out Stiltz's journey with impressive candor. "Love," a skittering, halftime confessional featuring Mass.-based crooner Teddy D on the hook, paints a vivid picture of redemption. It sets the stage for "The Past," where Stiltz lays it all on the line. This is some of his best songwriting to date, the urgent rhyme patterns weaving an auditory tour of his own downward spiral.
Plenty of the old Colby Stiltz is still here. He revels in talking shit about other rappers, devising new ways to crack weed jokes and spinning sex raps that are about as subtle as a cinder block through a window. On songs "Grow" and "Artist," you can hear the tug of war between Stiltz's old self and his new perspective. Rather than contradicting his message, this only strengthens his story arc and demonstrates that life lessons can be integrated into classic hip-hop themes.
All in all, Down to Earth is a monument to personal and artistic growth. The album is beautifully cohesive, rolling the contributions of seven producers into a single, organic meal. The attention to detail shines, from the smooth mixing to the fractal precision of his ad libs and chorus work. Stiltz has emerged from dark days and delivered a truly professional album.
Colby Stiltz hosts an album-release party for Down to Earth this Thursday, June 25, at Zen Lounge in Burlington, alongside Learic of the Aztext. Down to Earth is available at iTunes.