(Today's Reader Review comes from frequent contributor Taylor, who takes a trip down to Texas to discuss Houston native Z-Ro's eighth (seriously?) album, The Life Of Joseph W. McVey. Leave your thoughts for him in the comments.)
Hey kids! Any of you ever heard of Z-Ro? Houston rapper, released a ton of albums?
No? Well I shouldn't be surprised; he's one of the most underrated rappers out there. Despite releasing around fifteen albums and being one of the original members of the influential Screwed Up Click, his name doesn't often come up in hip hop circles: hell, I first found out about him when I was browsing through Wikipedia. I still don't know why I somehow got my hands on Z-Ro vs. the World (which was the first album from him that I bought); maybe the cover interested me or something, I don't know, but I was pleasantly pleased with what I heard.
Z-Ro has lived a tough life: with his mother dying when he was only six years old, he moved from household to household in search of stability, turning to hustling and selling drugs in order to survive. Apparently, listening to music from the likes of 2Pac, K-Rino and the Geto Boys inspired him to work harder, even giving him the idea that he may even someday leave the cold, hard streets of the ghetto, which he may or may not have done, depending on how successful you believe that he has been in his career. I won't judge about whether or not the music he was listening to was actually any good, but I will say that every artist has to start somewhere, and those artists, among others I'm sure, inspired him to hustle his way to a deal with an independent label, which then turned into a deal with major player Rap-A-Lot Records, which brings us to today's post.
I'm skipping ahead to Z-Ro's major label debut, The Life of Joseph W.McVey, which came out around six years after he released his debut. Many assumed this would be his big break, and although it didn't fare as well as expected sales-wise (of the two or three singles released, only one of them hit the Billboard charts: you'll find out which one it was during the review), Z-Ro was exposed to a much larger audience. Whether or not that audience sought out his previous efforts I don't know, but at least people now recognize his name.
So was The Life Of Joseph W. McVey good enough to justify the exposure? We'll see.
1. ON MY GRIND
Oh look, it's a rap album introduction. But this one has Z-Ro actually rapping on it, so now I'm confused. The Leroy Williams beat behind it was good, and Z-Ro introduces himself to his audience effectively, spitting his rhymes as though his life depended on it. You can definitely hear this influences, and yet he manages to creates his own style. The only problem is that it ends in the midst of Z-Ro's second verse. Why would you ever do that? What the fuck?
This self-titled song certainly has more of a Houston sound, which is good. This track serves as a decent example of one of the city's signature styles: I like the brash, in-your-face, Southern drum-heavy nature of it all, as our host uses the time allotted to tell his listeners who he is, what he stands for, and what he'll do to you if you get close to him, even managing to work in some decent imagery throughout. However; while I did like this song, you liking it is wholly dependent on whether or not you enjoy songs like this. Don't get me wrong: it's not a bad song, but your mileage may vary.
3. THESE N----Z (FEAT. SCARFACE)
Z-Ro and Scarface together should be a force to be reckoned with, but they don't really mix all that well on here. Granted, it does have the perfect instrumental (again credited to Leroy Williams), one that mixes Southern creep with mafioso, a really great chorus, and rhymes from both of our hosts that more than deliver. But there appears to be something missing. I know, it's hard to explain this when our host is spitting lines like “I gave you a chance to eat, but you chose to bite the hand that fed / You took your shit n---a, lay in your bed” and “Out of proportion, kicking they doors in trying to find 'em / But I'm above em and behind em, killing em slow with perfect timing”, but still. In no way should the above statement imply that this song sucks; I just feel it could have been so much more.
4. KING OF THE GHETTO
More slickly produced then the last few tracks. Z-Ro rips through his street tales in a congruent matter over a beat that combines synthesizers, a live bass guitar and heavy Southern drums, switching styles every so often from pseudo-storytelling to speed-rapping. The way he easily transitions adds to the track manages to give credence to the title Z-Ro has attached to himself. Even if you're not a fan of Houston rap, you definitely have to listen to this track.
5. II MANY N----Z
I mentioned this above, but it seems like the tracks on this project are much more slickly produced than those of its predecessors, and those predecessors contained the hardcore Houston sound that only an in independent underground rapper could produce. (See Z-Ro vs. The World for some clarification.) This isn't a bad thing, but it merits a mention just because of how different this album is. Anyways, songs about how enemies are going to come after the top dog are common in hip hop, and those songs are going to be either good or bad with no gray area: in the case of Z-Ro, he manages to make the material entertaining. The Solo beat may be more suited for a song about reflection, but the soulful nature of it, combined with the the subject matter, mesh like peanut butter and jelly. Z-Ro manages to mix in braggadocio with some personal thoughts and doubts in a way that's effective, reminiscing about old friends, his mortality, and his lot in life in a fashion that helps the track out immensely. I doubt that the rhymes alone would succeed if they were placed on a different song; without that beat, it just wouldn't have the same impact, and when the rhymes are essential to the track itself, that's when you know a song is a classic. A must listen.
6. I HATE U BITCH
This was the only song from the album to make Billboard's Hot R&B / Hip Hop Singles chart (it reached number seventy-five out of one hundred). I can see how this could have been a minor hit, as it mixes Houston flavor with the sensibilities of a smooth love song, even including Z-Ro actually singing during some points. It does seem to have been created especially for radio consumption, but our host doesn't change up his overall attitude for a possible mainstream audience: this ode to a bitch who he thought he wouldn't end up hating is just another in the long line of songs he has in his catalog about similar bitches. The song feels like it carries much more soul, giving it more weight than any song dedicated to a bitch should. A great song for the radio, I suppose, but when it's compared to the rest of the album, it's just a decent track.
7. HEY LIL MAMA
Having a song where Z-Ro tries to attract a “lil mama” immediately after a track where he refers to an anonymous girl as a bitch is questionable under any circumstances, but I can understand what he was trying to do. In any case, this song works well for what it's trying to be, which is Z-Ro's ode to an unknown female who he wants to love and probably fuck in a hotel room later on this evening. There isn't anything on here to elevate the song to the level of the best work on The Life Of Joseph W.McVey, though. There are some high points, though: the beat is soothing, and Z-Ro's rhymes are as serene as they are detailed. This is an enjoyable song, though, and I appreciate artists who at least try to do something unique with their albums.
8. SO MUCH
Personally I like the song: I've always loved how the guitar-tinged beat works in a soulful Houston mood, and I think “So Much” contains the perfect combination of rhymes switching between braggadocio and confusion (which seems to be a running theme in this album). However, critically speaking, it sounds like it was created specifically for radio airplay as opposed to it being something written for The Life Of Joseph W.McVey, and that hurts its standing for me, since it's obvious to me that this was intended to be a single (and probably is, for all I know). That said, I wouldn't turn the radio dial if I heard it playing., and it does fit the mood Z-Ro was ultimately going for with this project.
9. THAT'Z WHO I AM (FEAT. TRAE)
This has always sounded too much like “I Hate U Bitch” for me, despite its differing beat and subject matter. This is the first real misstep of the evening: the Mr. Lee beat is the ultimate undoing of the song, ruining what is supposed to be Z-Ro's ode to himself. It also doesn't help that this instrumental is the most uninspired of the bunch, lacking anything distinctive that helped make the other songs what they are. I will note that Z-Ro's 2Pac influences come out in full force, as certain verses do sound as though Pac himself had risen from the grave just to spit some bars on a track that doesn't even belong to him.
10. EVERYDAY (FEAT. TRAE)
The Mr. Lee beat here is a serious departure than what we've heard thus far. Not to say that it's bad, but after track after track of songs with similar musical backing, it's definitely a seismic shift. Our host's heartfelt rhymes mesh well with the beat, and he seems confident over this guitar-laced concoction.
11. CROOKED OFFICER
This is obviously Z-Ro's ode to the corrupt police in Houston. While the piano-laced beat is fitting, there isn't anything that sets this track apart from similar odes to corrupt cops from Los Angeles, New York City, or even Seattle. Our host's rhymes ring true, but he doesn't do anything for this song to stand out from the pack.
12. WHY? (FEAT. TANYA HERRON)
The question asked since the dawn of time, and answered the same way every time: I don't know! The mandatory “reflective” song of the album holds up well: the instrumental is decent, and the deeply personal rhymes are above average. However, you may find it hard to sit through this song in one sitting without falling asleep. Z-Ro's 2Pac's influences reappear here and are more obvious than ever; in fact, if you placed this track on a posthumous Pac project and tweaked the vocals just a bit, people would believe that this was an actual 2Pac performance. Not that I think anyone should do that, but the influence is unavoidable.
13. HAPPY FEELINGZ
Z-Ro closes the album in a much more positive manner than we've come to expect, The beat may be slickly produced, but it's very fitting to the subject matter, and it's definitely holds your interest throughout the running time. If you listen closely to the lyrics, you'll hear him give away some of his backstory regarding his family life, which definitely reinforces how he puts a lot of heart into his lyrics. All in all, a good end to end an album.
That's not all folks; two bonus tracks follow after the end of our main presentation.
14. Z-RO (SCREWED)
The intro of this song dedicates this conclusion to the album (made up of two songs) to the late DJ Screw, so, obviously, it's going to involve chopping and screwing songs, as that is what DJ Screw was best known for doing. Personally, I'm not a big fan of these types of mixes, but I do appreciate how this style puts the spotlight back on the lyrics. (Not that most fans of this style would notice, since it's also favorable to listen to chopped-and-screwed songs while high.) “Z-Ro” is not the song I would have selected to mix in this fashion, but it's a good fit nonetheless. This is a good starting point if you want to get in on the chopped and screwed phenomenon, and as a plus, it does reveal some lyrical gems that you may have missed if you were sitting through the regular version, one in particular being, “I hate the world, is the kind of attitude I got / But I could justify reasons, for any dude I shot”.
15. II MANY N----Z (SCREWED)
This is a better song to give the chopped & screwed treatment to, as it showcases the potential of the style as a whole. This is more enjoyable than the previous bonus track, and it contains even more lyrical gems. However, this ultimately isn't my cup of tea.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Houston hip hop is an acquired taste, much like the music from Memphis and from everywhere else that you're not already familiar with. However, a lot of The Life Of Joseph W. McVey does not require any prerequisites. In fact, a lot of this could even be described as “accessible”. Regardless of whether or not you get Houston hip hop, this album is great. On his mainstream debut, Z-Ro gives it everything he's got, delivering truthful, heartfelt rhymes with an edge. A lot of the production is top notch, and more often then not it meshes well with Z-Ro's voice. As expected, there are some missteps, but if you're interested in getting into Z-Ro's body of work, The Life Of Joseph W. McVey is a pretty good place to start from. Be forewarned, though: his early work sounds nothing like this project.
BUY OR BURN? By all means, buy this: most of the album is consistently entertaining, and your money will be put to good use.
BEST TRACKS: “King of the Ghetto”; “II Many N----z”; “Happy Feelinz”; “So Much” (despite my complaints about its radio-friendliness)
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)