(Equal Eyes Records, digital download)
Burlington producers ILLu and Rico James launched their hip-hop label, Equal Eyes Records, in March and have been hustling hard ever since. Textbook, by the new tandem of Question the MC & ILLu, is the label's fourth release in as many months. The album suggests a promising future for both artists and label.
On the mic, Question the MC's deadpan delivery is reminiscent of Boston legend Guru, best known for his work with Gang Starr. The rapper is a firm believer in hip-hop as life education, and every track here features hard-won advice from a man who knows that doing the right thing is easier said than done.
It ain't hard to tell that Textbook was patterned after hip-hop's most iconic debut LP: Illmatic, by New York City rapper Nas. Both boast 10 tracks and are deeply personal albums. And Textbook actually opens with a two-minute sample of Nas discussing his early inspirations, challenges and love for music.
That might sound like a heavy-handed approach. But in the context of the duo's album, it's an inspired move. As the tracks unfold, it becomes clear the intro is more than just a tribute — the monologue establishes the themes that shape the album. Textbook is about the challenges of negotiating adulthood, the importance of family and fanatical devotion to hip-hop as an art form.
The guest appearances on Textbook reaffirm those ideas. (They also reflect the close-knit scene that's grown out of Anthill Collective's monthly 3rd Thursdays event at the Monkey House in Winooski.) First up is Humble, local farmer and member of Bless the Child, on "Far Reaches." It's a funky, melodic track, and the two rappers have real chemistry.
"Visions of the Past" is a bluntly intimate song about friendships falling apart. It's a perfect showcase for Drive, a standout newcomer who makes the most of the opportunity.
Finally, Colby Stiltz comes through for "Who" and delivers a funny, clever and raw verse. It's obvious that these artists all respect Question the MC enough to bring their A-plus game.
Speaking of which, ILLu's production work shines throughout Textbook. He consistently nails a lush, timeless tone, and the beats are mostly bright soul-chop bangers. The exceptions are exceptional, such as the crushing, cinematic "Up in Your Home," which hits like RZA back in his Wu-Tang Forever prime. Closing cut "The Strategy" inverts a familiar movie theme into a perfect canvas for Question the MC to deliver one of his strongest performances.
As the first rap album released on Equal Eyes Records, Textbook is a home run. It fits the imprint's emerging aesthetic perfectly, too. Question the MC & ILLu go against the grain of contemporary rap fads to deliver an uncompromising vision. The result is a mature, thoughtful LP with top-notch production. Anyone who appreciates beats and rhymes should give Textbook a listen.
Textbook is available at equaleyesrecords.bandcamp.com.