On Strange Passengers, Madison spinster Horton the Irrelevant and his cohort, producer August the Creep (Gnarls Barkley comparisons may commence immediately), find a time and a season for all the flavorful strands of hip-hop — gritty gangsta, Gorillaz-esque experimental, soulful hip-pop and more standardized, sample-happy fare. It almost splits at the seams with stylistic variance. But no matter the tempo, mood or motif, this deliriously enjoyable collection always comes at you with a volcanic rush of swooping grooves, wit, oddity, and left-field invention. You'll get knocked on your ass and gleefully revel in it. Born Gabriel Karter, Horton the Irrelevant passed his youth and early adulthood here in Madison before venturing out to either coast. Along the way he formed a meeting-of-the-minds rapport with MC/producer Andy Kaufman (August the Creep). Henceforth, this pairing has melded into an inspired tandem of talents who value the wisdom of playing to their respective strengths. With Horton stationed at the helm and August managing the production tricks and terrains, they do posture like an underground, poor man's Gnarls Barkley, but without the third-rate connotations. Strange Passengers, in fact, is a sheer instance of high-minded aspirants dicing up the work of their forebears and successfully merging it into a winning concoction. The outgrowths of this ramshackle formula take on a maddening array of sonic shapes and colors. "Once Said Truths" is full of scattered atmospherics, almost as if multiple soundscapes are dueling it out for sole domain. The production dosages are kept appropriately light, however, creating a sound of texture, not a confused mishmash. "The Why" poses, at first, like an updated Jackson 5 burner, infused with the stomp and heft of marching soul-rock, and then halfway through curiously downshifts to a darker, enigmatic flow. It's a theoretical car jam. But Horton's characteristically throaty and husk-filled vocals bind the bustle of this off-kilter production work. In addition to its shifty arrangements, Strange Passengers owes its swirling, full-loaded eclecticism to Horton's wax and wane vocals. On the confessional chorus of "Problems," he pleads, "Mama, I keep dodging these problems" with urgent self-indictment worthy of 2Pac (like on "Changes"). Horton equally nails the hushed expressiveness of the excellent "Strung Out," and on its cousin piece, "The Author," he inflects the twisting narrative with fits of furtive melancholy. One of the album's rare misses, "3-Headed," oddly reveals his mettle best because it sets up a contrast with the contributions of Kalo and August the Creep. Bookended by their serviceable vocal tracks, Horton stampedes through the din of sheen waves and female backup samples with a brawny charge. Overall, Strange Passengers keeps the focus on production schemes, and many of its beats simply cannot be upstaged, even by Horton's superb delivery. "What I Know" winds through a murky haze of twilight dials that recalls Gorillaz at their subdued best. The absurdly cool "Robots" samples — prepare yourself for this — a NES "Mega Man" theme and thickens its rhythm with punchy percussion. Too self-deprecating to sidestep the irony, Horton basks in it, asserting on the chorus, "You should know in advance what I hold in my hand/ Because Horton's a Mega Man." "Save the Brunettes," a jaunty ride through Horton's taste for that hair type, plays up his cheeky inclinations in more plain view. It's peppered with breezy wit — "Throwaway your bleaching dyes/ Some enough you'll find/ It's not what you are" and "It ain't nothing against blondes/ We just like the diversity." This joyously comical facet of Horton is one measure of his confidence as an artist. But he's no one-note bar clown. Strange Passengers does play like an ideal house party backdrop. But it's too full-bodied of a creation to be pigeonholed in this manner, a reality not lost on the seemingly modest Horton. Amid the click and clack of "Drop the Needle, Push Play, Say Yeah" (a song title the Go Team would likely envy), he allows for a revealing conceit: "Just listen and enjoy/ What a beautiful noise." Strange Passengers brims with such delights and is so finely crafted that it must be included among the top releases of this still young year. Grade: 4 out of 5