20 October, 2006@12:00 am
Amid the recent explosion of the hyphy movement in the Bay Area, longstanding groups in the region like Zion I are proof that there’s a whole ‘nuther side of hip-hop up that way. It’s not that this Oakland duo’s music doesn’t bump, but Zion I’s ever-evolving beats and rhymes equal a sound that usually transcends individual scenes of-the-moment. The same could be said for former Oaktown native, The Grouch (of the Living Legends), who joins forces with Zion I’s Amp Live and MC Zion on the new album Heroes In The City Of Dope. This ambitious collaboration is arguably the most universal effort yet from either of these acts.
On the surface, this album’s title may seem a little self-righteous, but while Zion and The Grouch are trying to evoke change with their raps, they’re not doing so from an elitist stance. As The Grouch raps on the bottom-heavy track “The Faint of Heart”, “I’m the Skywalker / I talk the way I wanna be/but sometimes how I am and that don’t always agree.” Simply put, these cats realize that they’re only human. And whether they’re capturing the state of paranoia the government has created for non-”patriotic” Americans these days (“Current Affairs”) or paying respect to the women in their lives (“Make U Fly” feat. Esthero), Zion and The Grouch consistently craft intelligent yet easily digestible raps.
While both Zion and The Grouch remain easy to relate to, some of the album’s best tracks see these MCs unveil elements of their lives that most listeners have probably yet to experience themselves. Take “Trains and Planes”, which features Zion and The Grouch painting an admirable portrait of what it’s like to regularly travel the globe as performers over Headnodic’s melodic beat. Then on “10 Fingers 10 Toes 10lbs 10oz”, The Grouch divulges in how having a daughter changed everything in his life: “I swore I had shit figured out before / baby, the old me went right out the door / I just want to be the father / folks rarely do / stand up and be there for you.”
All throughout, the palette of subject matter is remarkable – so much so that there is a little something for (almost) everybody. While they don’t kick any mind-blowing metaphors, Zion and The Grouch’s strength lies in their versatility and articulation. Moreover, the Cali thump provided by producers Amp Live, Headnodic, Eligh and The Grouch is typically right on-point. Amp Live specifically deserves props for extending his sound on a few cuts like on the danceable ska-inspired production of “Kickin It” (a track which is incidentally a rough throw back to Boogie Down Production’s “9mm Goes Bang”). Sure, there a few beats, like The Grouch’s instrumental for “Open The Door”, which could have been injected with a little more gusto, but all in all, the production is as solid as the rhymes.
With the year quickly coming to a close, it’s no long shot to call Heroes In The City Of Dope one of the best independent albums to come out of the West Coast in 2006. After putting out countless releases amongst their own crews, the union of Zion I and The Grouch was just what both these acts needed to propel their careers.
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