One of the most illuminating moments on Ras Nebyu’s bright new album, “Uptown Lion Walkin,” takes shape in a concise metaphysical brag: “Third eye seeing better.”
Do you see what he sees? The D.C. rapper has always sounded alive and alert, but nowadays, his hi-def visions of a mercilessly gentrified city feel like little flashes of omnipotence. While his third eye has a lot to do with it, so do his own two feet.
“Walking would prompt me to open my mind,” the 27-year-old says of his impulse to compose rhymes while strolling the streets. “Initially, it wasn’t really to write. It was just to unwind.” But lyrics started blooming in his head — four lines here, eight lines there — and before long, he was drafting a portrait of a mutating District as he marched across it in real time. “And I was able to feel the music more than ever,” he says.
That ability to feel the music — to convert rage and righteousness into rhyme and melody without sounding ornery or pedantic — has positioned Nebyu as one of the most potent voices in the city. “I love a lot of conscious rappers, but I didn’t come into hip-hop through conscious rap. I grew up in a conscious household,” he says, explaining how his parents gave him an Afrocentric education while raising him Ethiopian Orthodox with “a heavy Rastafarian sentiment” — all of which you can hear layered in his verses.
He says he’s still learning, too. “When you study history, you get superpowers in terms of seeing where things are going,” Nebyu says, glancing into the middle distance. Once that third eye opens, there’s always more to see.
Show: Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. at Songbyrd. $12 in advance, $15 at the door.