The Chapel Hill rapper SkyBlew seems to have grown out of the phase in which he sported his Dwayne Wayne-style flip-up glasses. But on his new album, Race For Your Life, SkyBlew, he still reflects the ideals of the A Different World television star, known for those specs and his black exceptionalism balance of book smarts and urban style. There’s even a track named for Wayne. SkyBlew, too, feels like the “coolest nerd in the game,” as witnessed in the video for the album’s first single, “Picture That.” The glasses are gone, but the cartoon beanie and the backpack remain. And with this homage to a Charlie Brown classic chasing last year’s Nickelodeon-inspired SkyBlew’s UNModern Life, the emcee has at last conjoined rap worlds where everything is animatedwell, except for the raps.

Instead, the environment of “SkyBlew’s Dream Land” oppresses and softens his indictments, like “all these other rappers suck/inhalin’ each other and spittin’ out the same stuff.” On “The Weakness,” the consequences of day-dreaming lack real-life results as SkyBlew goes astray with lines like “imagination ecstatic, sporadic fairies to carry us home.” It’s not entirely his fault, as beat providers such as Scottie Royal, Backdraft and Deejay Verstyle present these tracks like mannered compositions, as though they forgot they had an emcee to accommodate. We hear SkyBlew only as a ghost in his own machine, not its master or monster. His play world isn’t ready yet.

When they do get it right, as on the Royal-produced, jazz-hopped “Spirit Detective 2,” we get the best of SkyBlew. “Through the eye of the storm, I transform the norm,” he offers. “Hauntin’ your dreams when I put hands on both horns/and toss into the thorns/the spirit in my hands/tryin’ to make a point that you wouldn’t understand.” He’s living in a fantasy world, wrestling horned enemies in the name of hip-hop. It’s fun to visit his realm for a spell, at least until weak beats or strained lines reroute us to reality.

SkyBlew plays the Cat’s Cradle Back Room Saturday, July 25, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8–$10, and the bill includes DJ Reimei, War In The Pocket, OC & B2, Azon Blaze and Samson.

Label: Random Beats Music

This article appeared in print with the headline “Alternate realities.”