Project Pat and Z-Ro: The Unsung Heroes of Southern Rap
More North Memphis than some junkies at a car wash
For some reason, half of 2006's rap albums seem to be coming out during a two-month fourth quarter stretch. I guess the idea is that all these records will help each other rather than competing with each other, that someone going into a record store to buy Kingdom Come will probably also grab a copy of Tha Blue Carpet Treatment while she's in there. Or maybe it's just bad planning; the cumulative effect of this fourth-quarter onslaught of rap records is that it gets hard for even music critics to stay on top of everything that's coming out, and so a lot of stuff ends up getting swept under the carpet. It makes some sense that Jay-Z and Young Jeezy would put out records in the same month; they're both major artists with heavily anticipated records, and they probably aren't going to get in each other's way too much. But plenty of lesser-known artists also have records coming out, and they probably aren't going to fare so well. This past Tuesday, two of my favorite Southern rap veterans put out new albums, and hardly anyone seemed to notice. Project Pat and Z-Ro have a lot in common. They've both been around forever, building the sort of massive underground reputations that rarely translate into actual hit records outside their home regions. They've both developed instantly recognizable vocal styles. And they've both had trouble with the law; Pat's new album, Crook By Da Book: The Fed Story, is the first he's released since finishing up a four-year prison stay for parole violation, and Z-Ro is currently serving time for narcotics possession; he must've recorded his new I'm Still Livin' immediately before starting his bid. I don't know how much these guys' personal lives have affected their music, but both of them have just released albums about crime and poverty, and neither one is particularly celebratory. Someone like Young Jeezy might be able to use that same subject matter to craft this titanic persona without really addressing the inevitable consequences of living a dangerous life, but Pat and Z-Ro don't have that luxury, and so Crook By Da Book and I'm Still Livin' are both sad, sober affairs. They're also both great albums, and I'd hate to see either one get overlooked.
Crook By Da Book is the first Hypnotize Camp Posse album since Chrome's Straight to the Pros came out more than a year ago, and so that makes it the first HCP album since Three 6 Mafia and Frayser Boy won their Oscar. With that triumph and Pat's prison release, you'd think these guys would have a lot to celebrate. But the album significantly tones down DJ Paul and Juicy J's gothic fight music, diving further into the retro-soul kick they've been on for a while now. DJ Paul and Juicy J sample Willie Hutch and Frankie Beverly, and sometimes the effect feels like a Southern take on the tear-stained organic sweep of Ghostface's Pretty Toney Album or Beanie Sigel's The B.Coming. Beanie himself turns up on "Purple" to talk about cough syrup; he's on autopilot, but the heavy grain of his voice sounds amazing on the track, and he's the only non-Southern guest on either Crook By Da Book or I'm Still Livin'. Paul and Juicy practically have practically made a cottage industry out of sampling Willie Hutch; their track for the old Pat song "Choose U" might be the prettiest thing they've ever done. On the intro to "What Money Do," DJ Paul skips a needle over Hutch's "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," looking for the perfect moment to grab. Paul and Juicy's old synthed-up horror-movie sonics are still here, but they've been blurred into the album's downbeat gurgle. A lot of the old Three 6 Mafia excesses have been toned down; Paul and Juicy still yell uproariously about upcoming projects on the album's outro, but for once it isn't preceded by an incendiary all-HCP posse cut. As for Pat, his singsong helium chirp still has a lot of its loose playfulness, but he doesn't run off the rails as often as he did on previous albums; there's no talk about dog food up your nose. For the first time, he sounds vaguely vulnerable. "Cocaine" is about selling the titular drug, but it's also about sniffing it. "Tell Tell Tell (Stop Snitchin')" doesn't exactly break new lyrical ground, but it's a startlingly passionate indictment; Pat sounds personally insulted that anyone would ever consider snitching. Pat still takes an obvious joy in his own voice: "Hats cocked, guns popped, quick to have a trigger fit / On a punk chick knowing good well he counterfeit." But he's not the cartoonish uber-thug figure he once was, and on album opener "I Ain't Going Back to Jail," he sounds damn near desperate.
Crook By Da Book is a great Southern rap genre exercise, but it's nowhere near as powerful a work as I'm Still Livin', an album so relentlessly bleak that I feel like the air's been sucked out of me every time I hear it. The big difference between Pat and Z-Ro is that Pat sometimes lets a little bit of that desperation creep into his voice, almost by accident, while Z-Ro outright embraces it, turning it into a personal style. Throughout the album, he sounds just inconsolably sad, like he realizes that he's stuck in a vicious cycle of violence and depression but he can't figure out a way out of it. His voice is thick and deep and suffocating; he's barely a year older than me, but he sounds like he could be my grandfather, and he knows it: "I'm twenty-seven, but I'm feeling seventy-one / I pray so much I feel like I'm kin to the heavenly son." His voice is a bottomless drawl; at times, he sounds just like Tupac, all gravelly determination. He can do fast-rap, but even when his words are tumbling all over each other, they still sound like they're moving slow. And his singing voice is just gorgeous, a burned-out moan that conveys despair with every warble. On "T.H.U.G. (True Hero Under God)," he sings his own lyrics to the tune of Luther Vandross's "So Amazing," and those lyrics are pretty ridiculous ("I swear it's so amazing to be a thug / A true hero under God's sight from above"), but he delivers them with such tender conviction, like nothing in the world could mean more to him than these words and this tune. About half the tracks come from the criminally underrated Rap-A-Lot house producer Mike Dean. His tracks create a rainy, depressive backdrop: Road House blooz guitars, drowning organs, tinkly pianos, everything humid and organic and mixed low enough to give plenty of space to Z-Ro's voice. And Z-Ro creates a world with his voice and his words.
There's not a single happy moment on I'm Still Livin'. Even on "Remember Me," when he brags about sleeping on Gucci bedspreads, he's just doing it to rub it in the faces of all the people who told him he couldn't rap when he was a kid; he doesn't seem to take any actual joy in his wealth. Throughout the album, he's disappointed with everyone around him, burned too many time by people who he thought were his friends. Every little aside drips with pessimism: "I don't give a damn what these people have to say / Half the people in the Church got evil ways." Over and over, he talks about rolling one deep, and it's a statement of absolute misanthropy. He can't stand to be around the people who have let him down so many times: "I'm living to be one deep so much I'm hating people / Looking at everybody, even babies, like they Satan people." Beneath all that bad faith, though, there's a damaged idealism. Z-Ro realizes that everyone is struggling; on "T.H.U.G.," he even specifically shouts out gay people and lesbians, and the unexpectedness of that olive branch makes it feel all the more powerful and heartfelt. So it's a bit jarring when Z-Ro finally gets around to threatening to shoot people five songs into the album after all that overwhelming sadness and humanity. Tracks like "M16" are expert examples of the stock murder-threat song, but it's a bit of a letdown to hear Z-Ro resorting to all that noise. But Z-Ro's disappointed with himself as well as everyone else: "I tried to be a changed man, but my plan ain't play / Haters forced me to put a gun back in my hand and spray." It's like he's trapped. The only person he seems to trust is his cousin Trae, who gets a heartfelt tribute and makes a couple of guest appearances. Pimp C also comes through, as he does on Crook By Da Book. And HAWK, who must've spent the months before his murder recording nothing but eerily prescient verses, turns up on the title track. The voices of the dead and the incarcerated are all over this great piece of work; it's like a free-floating cloud of depression.
So yeah, Tuesday was an amazing day for fans of hard, rainy, dystopian Southern rap, but the world at large is probably never going to realize that Crook By Da Book and I'm Still Livin' even exist. And that's a shame; these albums deserve to be heard.