(Self-released, digital download)
Vermont rapper Humble, aka Jeff Philie, has been a credit to the local scene for nearly a decade. Known for his work on the mic with Bless the Child, he's equally respected as a community builder. Hosting open mics and helping with charity events are the least of his contributions: He's also a full-time father and certified organic herb farmer. That's a heady stew of life experience, all of which comes to bear on his remarkable new album, Premonition.
Humble has long been one of Vermont's best practitioners of "conscious rap." He balances his earnest politics with a scrupulous respect for hip-hop fundamentals. His flow is laid-back but persistent, a distinctive blend of early '90s rap from the East and West coasts. Think Hieroglyphics meets Grand Puba. He's also more flexible than ever, and Premonition is full of new cadences and songwriting approaches.
The album kicks off with two tracks produced by local beatsmith Old Gold, who nails a pocket between boom bap and pure psychedelia. Old Gold has been honing a distinctive sound through remixes and live performances, and it pays off big on Premonition. He contributed three other standout tracks here, most especially "Ancient Burial Verse," perhaps the best song on the album.
Then again, perhaps not. It speaks to Humble's quality control that it's probably a four-way tie for that title, with no clear winner.
Premonition has some very ambitious, Big Idea concept tracks. But none is more formidable than "I Am America." Over a hypnotic Dave Mitchell beat, Humble launches into what sounds like an intricate chorus that turns out to be a five-minute barrage of brilliantly inventive rhyme writing.
Other surprises are in store. On "Matchbook," a dark, thumping beat from Rico James of Self Portrait, Humble flexes a nonstop verse of carefully written show-off rhymes. It's a side of the artist we seldom see, and it's a real treat.
The final contender for best track would be "Mama Earth," a cut that features his Bless the Child collaborator Rajnii Eddins. Producer iLLu crafts a beautiful space that allows the duo's tag-team dynamic to shine. It's also the kind of beat you can leave on repeat for hours, a summer vacation for your headphones.
Humble's production approach is, true to form, unvarnished. In an era of Pro Tools gloss, Premonition harks back to the days of four-track machines and demo tapes. The home-studio feel is fitting for such a personal album, though. It's organic produce, after all. Thanks to the mastering expertise of Zach Crawford, aka SpySplitterInk, everything here bangs, too.
With no hype or fanfare, Humble has quietly dropped one of the best Vermont rap albums of the year so far. This is a fast-moving, sample-heavy tribute to classic rap cassettes recommended for the genre faithful and curious locals alike. It showcases no fewer than seven different producers, yet it's a smooth ride front to back. In short, Premonition is an unexpected gift.
Premonition by Humble is available at mchumble.bandcamp.com.