[RAP TO THE FUTURE] With each new release, veteran Portland MC Cool Nutz believes he is completely reinventing himself. He's only partly right. The Cook-Up indeed represents a change in direction for Nutz on the musical front: By taking on young local producers like G_Force, Tope and Lawz Spoken and extending a hand to fresh-faced MCs, Nutz is staking a clear claim in the Rose City's future and embracing a soulful new sound.

But what remains intact on this, his first foray into the free download album, is Nutz's signature halting, impressionistic flow. That's evident from the first bars of the opening title track, where Nutz talks drugs and money while embracing the semi-abstract, free-association rhymes that make his voice recognizable ("Cop work, get money and the swag nice/ Talk birds, talk guap and it's real life"). And when Nutz trades bars with Mikey Vegaz on "Superman," or with Illmaculate and OnlyOne on "Killin," his clear-throated, familiar flow is only underscored by way of juxtaposition with breathy young rappers that came up in the Kanye era.

None of which is to suggest that Nutz gets outmatched by his collaborators. If anything, The Cook-Up proves just how adaptable Nutz's diamond-sharp grocery list assaults are to all kinds of production, from DJ Quik's boom-bap/classical fusion on "The Good Life" to Tope's psychedelic soul on "Black Music." It's hard to age well in hip-hop, but Nutz has survived multiple eras by packing a few prized possessions in his toolkit and walking away from the rest while it burns to the ground—a skill duly demonstrated on smart, soulful closer "The Greatest." As much as Nutz wants to believe he has evolved into a new species altogether, he should be proud of growing by leaps and bounds as an MC within his unique rap blueprint. One wouldn't ask Slick Rick to start rapping like Gucci Man, and by the same token, it's time Portland appreciated Cool Nutz for being a true original.

SEE IT: Cool Nutz's The Cook-Up comes out Tuesday, Aug. 2, as a free download at raphater.com.