(Equal Eyes Records, CD and digital download)
Learic and SkySplitterInk should have teamed up years ago. The local hip-hop artists have worked on songs together before, most notably the 2014 single "Side Three." But an album has been long overdue. As expected, the duo's new collaboration The Theorist, which dropped last week at a knockout release party at Nectar's in Burlington, turns out to be a monumental high point for the 802 rap scene. It's also a truly weird work of art.
Learic, aka writer/actor Devon Ewalt, has a reasonable claim to the title of the best rapper in Vermont. The man has won multiple battles to that effect over the years. He's also legendary in the scene for his ability to freestyle entire sets so well nobody notices he's winging it.
SkySplitterInk, aka engineer/dad Zach Crawford, has evolved into one of the most distinctive producers our brave little state has ever heard. His deep musical background, both as a multi-instrumentalist and behind the console, makes for beats that could just as easily be movie soundtracks. In fact, on this latest record, that's exactly what they are.
Learic's sheer talent makes it easy to lose sight of what an idiosyncratic artist he is. After The Theorist, that should change. It may sound pretentious to call your project "a cinematic musical experience," but that's a fair reckoning for this remarkable oddball of an album. In the space of seven tracks, the duo hits you with a vivid, layered story.
That story is full of surprises, and as with any film, the reviewer is obligated to abstain from spoilers. But the setup here is familiar to noir fans: a dame, a detective and a mystery. The album is way more than a collection of thematically consistent rap songs. The Theorist really is crafted to play like a movie, and is as carefully composed as any screenplay.
Learic juggles first-person narratives and visual exposition, and he raps as multiple characters, too. It's a masterful tightrope walk. At any moment, such an ambitious approach could collapse into corniness — or worse, get too self-aware. Instead, Learic keeps you glued to your seat every second.
This kind of high-concept art-rap puts huge demands on production. SkySplitterInk is more than equal to the task. His wall of sound will give your speakers a workout, but everything is clean and bright. The vibe is more Chemical Brothers or Gorillaz than Dr. Dre, which is a perfect match for Learic. He's always been a decidedly East Coast MC, with a deliberate flow and the enunciation of, well, an actor.
While The Theorist may be far stranger stuff than the average rap album in 2019, it's also got huge crossover potential. These are melodic, catchy songs, and every one of them sounds like several million bucks. More than that, though, the appeal of good storytelling is universal. Buy the ticket, take the ride, and I guarantee you will walk out of the theater demanding a sequel.
The Theorist is available at equaleyesrecords.bandcamp.com.