Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Z-Ro the crooked know the key to survival is fuck friends"

Currently listening to - Z-Ro - King of Tha Ghetto - Power (released May 2007)

(demagogic ploy aimed right at your heart)
Have you seen this video?

It's nowhere near indicative of Z-Ro's autobiographical abilities nor his keen insight into societal problems. He doesn't make many fully coherent statements, and it comes off like he's a horrible interviewer. The entire set-up is absurd, though. A sycophantic rap blogger is momentarily breaking him out of penitential routine to talk about an album he didn't get to see the release of or celebrate the reaping from. Instead he gets biblical and talks about Christian apologia and reaping what he's sewn. That he constantly follows up his statements with a "you know" only to be met with blind, unknowing enthusiasm can easily be derided as an inability to properly communicate his thoughts, but he's also being asked to discuss on a soon-to-be widely distributed video what led him to where he is. For the record, he's in the Pam LYNCHner State Jail! Listen to the way he alludes to "situations" that he "found" himself in on the streets. That's the sound of someone who's already served life before hitting 30. Of course that's not what he's in there for but his gravel-throated utter sounds like he's channeling the dead that take up grave stones in his songs.
Eventually it seems like the the interviewer catches on to the absurdity of the situation and makes an onslaught of nonsense rhetoricals, as if pulling Z-Ro's teeth would be nothing without some dental work, asking him if he'd ever thought he'd make it on street flavor from the inside of a state correctional and then answering for him by saying it's awesome. Everything he may have wanted to know, though, is in his right hand already. You have to wonder what Z-Ro felt like walking back to his cell, probably convinced his convictions in regards to others were dead on, yet again solidifying his self-imposed exile from those around him, which, as the interview probably knows, was something well worked out in his lyrics. I have nothing against interviewing Z-Ro in jail, it probably gave him a chance to break out from the monotony of prison life, but Z-Ro doesn't come off like someone that wants to be taken out of his solitude. He's seen what the world has to offer and therefore desperately clings to Jesus in an effort to cash in on the broken promise of righteous living. What other explanation for the volatile bloodletting in a hail of gunpowder than the raging hellfire below. Well, you might say there's an existential nothingness that also highlights the arbitrary nature of man's suffering, but that doesn't give a satisfying answer as to what would drive this (neither does the devil, but fire and brimstone's legacy can pave way for this):

Man they tied up my nigga, and sawed off his head
The cold part about it, they ain't even take no bread

Now, if you haven't listened to Z-Ro, then here's a good primer, a Z-Ro Mix courtesy of Cocaine Blunts. It's not chronological, taking time to reach back to his solo debut, Look What You Did To Me while climbing round I'm Still Livin', but unfortunately doesn't include Z-Ro's exegesis "Another Song" from Let The Truth Be Told in which he apologizes to his fans for not having any upbeat club songs or songs that would make 'em smile by way of osmosis since Z-Ro would be rapping about having inner peace, then, over one of the happiest beats ever laid on him, goes on to rap about not being capable of writing such a song because he is never at peace, and lists the life-worn reasons that make up the why not. What it does include is the closing track on The Life of Joseph W. McVey, Happy Feelingz, in which he pulls the same stunt and raps about why he needs Lexapro. Aside from any of the three Geto Boys' wrangling with depression I've rarely heard rappers break down between bouts of depressive violence to talk about anti-depressants. It's only a line, but it's in line with his intensely confessional approach to rapping. Z-Ro may indulge in Don diva status, but more often than not finds himself entirely unconstrained by hierarchical corpse climbing, abandoning the crime syndicate to just be alone. Which is why the lyrical trajectory from I'm Still Living to his new album Power is so depressing in that in between depressive bouts of introspective solitude he jumps back on the gangster tropes and keeps it "real". This, though, is entirely selfish of me, considering my view of quality is how depressive the subject matter gets. When Z-Ro indulges in those tropes he sometimes sounds entirely comfortable not rapping about how much life sucks in reality. He weaves that weariness into his narratives but sometimes gives off that gangster fuck-all that sounds a lot more helpful than endless mining of one's demons for a way out. That too, though, is dismissive of something.
Consider the packaging and production on Power. The CD (Rap-A-Lot hates vinyl lovers), despite being a RAL release, seems to boast of itself as a tangential project under the moniker King of Tha Ghetto (a monarchic staff wielded multiple times in his oeuvre). When I first unwrapped the album (I had ignored the subtitle) I noticed the phrase "The Under Ground So Hard It Should Be A Real Album" and worried I had accidentally stumbled onto a quick fix compilation album in anticipation for something I should have waited for. I researched it and instead found it's rumoured to have been recorded in one week to satisfy fans with a quick fix before Z-Ro had to endure his next prison bid. But instead of that organic southern drawl or powerhouse Rap-A-Lot roster production, all of the tracks are produced by Z-Ro and Z-Ro alone. Considering the time slot the production work is impressive. Z-Ro knows what he sounds good on but also kind of just sticks to a pattern of stable beats. I first listened to it on headphones and the beats seemed less like a cohesive whole than a compartmentalized consistency of efficiently pro-tooled parts. No doubt they get the job done, but Z-Ro's voice has an authorial quality that seems to drift from the aether with the immediacy of a monsoon, so natural it's not even aware of its function as a wreck-inducing force of destruction. Like a construction crew falling prey to an accident while attempting to build a wall of desponden- okay, that's high-falutin' lameness, but if you listen to this man speak, you'll feel like your stepping in on something you didn't need to hear, like a deeply personal and awkwardly troubling conversation just enough within earshot to let you know not even a grief counselor could make something out of it. And sometimes the beats didn't live up to that. (Update, first time I heard this was on headphones. Second time I turned up the stereo speakers and it sounded pretty great).
I mention the aural aesthetic as an alternative to the lyrics because just hearing him is heartbreaking. On Power, no matter what he's singing or rapping about, he sounds like he's just biding his time until his time is out. The piano chords chosen are rarely triumphant and the guitar lines are wistful. The only dramatic force heard is that of dejected frustration. But I'm making it out to be a pity case, mother fucker knows how to get down. Just listen to the funk outs on Let The Truth Be Told. And as much as I'm making the beats out to be the aural equivalent of Emily Dickinson Z-Ro is just at skilled at dropping hooks. Once you get past what makes him tick, you also just want to bide your time along with him via his croons.
My introduction was I'm Still Living, where the only song to indulge in any senseless violence was M-16 (a stripped down, original version of which appears on Power). The rest of the songs found Z-Ro fed up with senseless violence, calling out the streets and people keeping it real for taking up the mantle of responsibility in their self-destruction. Now, I'm not running game on the hood with any anti-welfare tirades, dude's been in the shit and is trying to see up over what's gone down on his block, consider the opening track (also sung by Z-Ro, who has one of the finest voices ever to grace a gravelly-throated rapper's throat):

the hook (the hook!):

Damn these city streets, are hard to live in
Eighty percent of my partnas are dead, the rest in prison
All I see is the struggle, my tears drown my vision
I never forget to mention, god damn these city streets

And, in order to demonstrate his keen societal insight i'll bop this here, an almost hopeful lament about trying to keep things rolling, turning Spandau Ballet's True into a kind of reluctant hood anthem:

Lil' kids, witness father and uncles pass on
Then they grow up, to get they blast on
Everybody saying, that the black community is out control
Even in the suburbs, brains get blown
They blame rap, for the murder rate
But people go to the movies, and see murder for seven dollars then they imitate
What they done seen, on Terminator 1 through 3
Swarchengger's the Governor, we get L-I-F-E
Innocent victims, get a free ride to the grave
People that work hard get robbed, for every penny they save
It's like it ain't gon ever change, this world we live in cold
I hit my Hypnotic, then I continue to roll

It's what people completely missed in Jeremiah Wright's growling thunder, you don't locate a problem by making non-divisive statements, you don't take baby steps by patronizing it, you cry your heart out because you've had it. You don't care who's ignorance is going to be offended, you know what's real because you live it and you want it to stop. As God is the pastor's backbone, so it is Z-Ro's and the only thing he claims to find solace in is the lord. And I say claim because someone who's found solace in the lord isn't constantly talking about praying to find solace in the lord. It's someone desperate for anything but "this":

I'm 27, but I'm feeling 71
I pray so much, I feel like I'm kin to the heavenly son
I dodge bullets on the daily, if I don't duck I'm stuck
Then I'll be another murder case, in back of that black truck

Now, David Banner can talk all day about straddling the line between societal remedy and fuck-all commercialism, proudly boasting about his post-modern ploy to hit the radio and prove it's soullessness by first making sensationally violent and sexed up pop songs and then juxtaposing them with real talk, thereby proving the pull that the former has and the latter doesn't. Z-Ro isn't really at a place where he'd even bother pulling something like that, because one, who on the radio would play his songs? and two, who gives a fuck about the radio? Yeah, he's only 27 there, but it won't be any different any time before he's 71 and he knows it. Instead, he made an entire album of real talk dedicated to his most dedicated listeners or really to anyone who'll bother to listen. As far as I'm concerned it eludes rap canonization by the nature of its constricting locality. Niche marketing will keep it from broadsweep recognition and its distended belly is hungry less for fame than a solution to its ever inflating problem. It's one of the most effectively depressing albums I've ever heard, and the only recognition it needs is help.
The only help constantly fallen back on is GOD. Z-Ro, kind of goofily, attempts to make over the image of a thug by calling himself a True Hero Under God. But don't get him wrong, he has much more in common with liberation theology than he does with Eric A. Rudolph, consider this:

Everyday I see my people in poverty,
and when I say my people I mean everybody I see,
ain't no discrimination on Caucasians,
or Asian or Mexicans, lesbians or the gay men,
everybody gotta day to die and they wont miss it
better be ready for company when death come visit.
man I wish adam and eve wouldn't have been in the garden,
got the devil swinging at me got me weavin and bobbin,
homies are bein murdered by lieutenants and seargants,
life's weeds were rooted just as soon as we harvest
searchin' for sunshine, suffocated by darkness,
lookin for protection in court tippin there fortress,
they tell me when I make it there'll be no more pain,
aint gotta be nervous about someone knowin ya name,
everybody is your family theres love around you,
even on earth god is your upper, people down you

When Dostoyevsky writes about Alyosha's Christian compassion, this is likely what he's talking about.
Of the handful of reviews there are for Power (there are about two), noted is Rap-A-Lot's standard of lackluster (meaning no apparent) promotion. Z-Ro seems to be entirely aware of that and not particularly worried as this is just another album in his steadily growing catalogue and he knows that those who'll buy it are those that want it and they'll appreciate it. And on Lovely Day he even gives in to those fans looking for an upbeat song. Lovely Day, while still touching on fucking other people up, does that more out of obligation to habit instead encapsulating escapism by getting caught up in a good mood.

I must'a, woke up this morning on the right side of bed
Cause I can't find nothing to bitch about, even though I'm low on bread...
So chill homie, for real homie
Cause you don't wanna die, and I don't wanna kill homie
But I will homie...Except for right now, cause all I wanna do is lay back

Like that fleeting feeling it doesn't last long, and the next song comes on, back to the uppers. Two songs later is Pimp C, Spice 1 collaboration called Murder'ra where he laments "I used to think I'd have a future in basketball, but now all I do is put people in caskets y'all". There's a song on I'm Still Livin' where he talks about being riled growing up for being an egghead but now he's got gucci bedspreads, but you watch the prison interview and it honestly does not look like he's that excited to have made it on street flavor from inside the penitentiary. Like he really wants to have to be drowning in solitude looking to god again. Making his money releasing songs where "the key to survival is fuck friends."

Since Z-Ro's prison bids are on fairly trivial charges like possession of a controlled substance (something which he repeatedly illustrates helps him stay calm, war on drugs be damned), or parole violation, he'll be back soon to make another one (unless he already is and I just don't know, which is where I stand on a lot of things). Still not selling gold or platinum, instead doling out parts of his life so he can Continue 2 Roll.