Baltimore rapper Ellis released "The Education of Ellis" in late 2013.
Baltimore rapper Ellis released "The Education of Ellis" in late 2013. (Handout)

"The Education of Ellis"
Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 4 

Four days before Christmas, Baltimore rapper Ellis released an early gift for free: "The Education of Ellis," his excellent fourth album that not only solidifies him as one of the city's most gifted MCs, but also raises the bar for future rap projects released here. And halfway through the record, as Ellis stacks syllable upon syllable on the lyrical exercise "Best Kept Secret," it becomes clear he knows it: "That B-more boy, he making magic again / And these hardbody bars don't break nor bend." 

The 16-track "Education" is the densest Baltimore rap project in recent memory, and the scrutiny it requires ultimately rewards listeners richly and repeatedly. Ellis, the 31-year-old who was born Ellis Marcus Hopkins Jr., packs the album to its seams with vivid stories that range from plaintive (the intro, "Blessed With the Gift," finds Ellis' head spinning over a friend who was murdered in a foolish fight) to sobering. 

The latter is most obvious on "Original Manz," a frank track that samples the old Nas lyric, "It's elementary they want us all gone eventually." Although the line was first rapped in the early '90s, it clearly rings true to Ellis today. "Education" constantly -- and thoughtfully -- reminds listeners of the cyclical struggles disadvantaged black Americans still face. Ellis raps about a friend's dilemma between selling drugs and a "workforce that won't let him compete," before beautifully widening his scope.

"Can't find a hustler across the map and the trap that want to sell crack / But self-preservation is the first law of nature / So we 'bout that paper from Jamaica to Decatur / Or kill ya before we graze ya / Inheriting slave blood comes with hostile behavior," Ellis rhymes. 

Eloquent and unapologetic, Ellis works as a lyrical triple threat on "Education." First, he pulls stories from his life: On the Styles P-assisted single "Misled," Ellis intricately raps about playing college basketball in Elkins, W.Va., or the "one place on the planet a black man should not be," and the interracial hookups it led to. Second, he ponders larger issues: On "Yellow Brick Road," he considers using pending fame as a platform to express his suspicions of the U.S. government. Third, Ellis, a natural braggart, often injects levity to tracks with effortless wit, never allowing a subject matter's heaviness to bog down the overall experience. In other words, he talks that talk.

A focus on lyrics can lead to other shortcomings, but "Education" arrives fully formed, from its enriching samples of the 1974 film "The Education of Sonny Carson" to the soulful production by Legin, Oh Genius and Sir Henry J. Stuart. At the helm is Ellis, an observant, clear-eyed rapper who specializes in realism, not cynicism. "This generational gap make them see us an uncouth / Call me crazy for trying to save the world from a booth," he raps on "I Know Why." Ellis may not succeed, but we're better for his trying.