Chicago rapper Verbal Kent’s reputation has grown ever since Dan Mennella first covered “What Box” in 2005 and I wrote a review of “Move With the Walls” for URB Magazine. It’s rare for any rapper to get better on every single album, let alone their reviews to reflect that fact, but I’m going to do a little foreshadowing here – the vibe scores Mr. Kent receives for “Save Yourself” are going to be his highest to date on this website.

Mediocre rappers can’t make enough money selling their albums or going on tour to afford paying top notch producers. That means our first clue Mr. Kent is balling major without a major label are the liner notes to “Save Yourself,” which read like a who’s who of hip-hop beats. An unmistakably Pete Rock beat boom baps the background of “Take,” and he even pulls double duty on “Respect” by dropping bars: “Follow me on Twitter but don’t stalk a nigga.” (That’s @chocboywundaif you’re interested.) !llmind sets the scene for a gritty Chi-Town grind on “Examples” and sets the table to boot on “Dinner Party,” but the only thing you’ll dine on is Kent’s non-stop delivery:

“Stretch your hands, open Hell’s gate
At least the victory cigar secondhand smoke smells great
That was rude of me, have to act suitably
Hackman like G-Men, half draft your eulogy
Ash to carpet, cash to charge, checks that bounce
PIN numbers, bank accounts
VIN numbers, license plates, unto the Earth
Your family in the limo bumpin bumper with the hearse”

Back to the production though – Apollo Brownlaces the wailing and soulful “Cry,” M-Phazes gives Kent a bouncy upbeat Sesame Street feel on “Ahead of Its Time,” Marco Polo drops in for the all-star “My City” where Edo.G and Sadat X drop guest bars, and lesser known beat maestros like Kelakovski and Lordbeatjitzu show black belt level skills on “Now” and the “Save Yourself” title track respectively. The latter in particular seems like a modern day RZA, complete with dirty production sound, musical notes that seem to bunch up like reel to reel tape, rugged pianos and random stabs of samples throughout. For those who weren’t already familiar with Verbal Kent before listening to the album, the excellent production alone could carry a newcomer through this presentation. Fortunately Kent is also a rapper worthy of sharing lyrical time with Masta Ace and One.Be.Lo on songs like “Last Laugh,” with his gritty Chicago flow not being overshadowed by his Pontiac and Brownsville compatriots:

Ace: “Aiyyo the life of a artist is the hardest
Cause you can be the smartest and so modest
But intelligence and modesty, really work against you
when the cocky ignorant cats are the hottest”

Kent: “Addicted to the process
The end result is how I feel, this is not a context
It’s me, and you can call it what you wanna
Cause fittin into a category is never really what I wanted”

One.Be.Lo: “I ain’t tryin to dwell in the past, live in the present
Everybody gather ’round like the pilgrims in Mecca
I was sent to deliver this message them others didn’t develop
It’s like their brains smokin cigarettes, pregnant”

If there’s a downside to Verbal Kent’s work on “Save Yourself” it’s that at times he allows the beats to overpower his delivery, which makes his intricate wordplay that much harder to discern. Of course this is an advance release copy (tentative drop date is January 11th) so it may be the final mixdown brings his vocals forward more so you can more clearly hear what he has to say. It’s worth hearing. Kent is not rewriting the rap game, nor is he going to be hailed as the greatest Chicagoan in hip-hop all time, but at this point in his career he’s making a strong case to be just as recognized as Common and Twista even if he doesn’t have their major label exposure and R&B cameo.