One of the best qualities of rap is that mixing the genre with other musical styles is simple and makes for some seriously enjoyable songs. The percussive nature of hip-hop allows for easy innovation – you can toss in a jazzy saxophone, rockin’ guitar lick, maybe some piano or soulful vocals and voila, you’ve got yourself a dope tune. The Bay Area’s Zion I
are hip-hop’s answer to the question, “Is it really music?” There’s more to rap than cool lyrics. Producer AmpLive is one half of the duo and his tracks aren’t “beats” in the traditional sense, more accurately the instrumental side of this deft harmonic blend. I tend to forget that “True & Livin’” is even a rap album when I get comfortably lost in it, further enforcing the embrace of progressive music. This record is not only fantastic; it’s a perfect tool for anyone looking to appreciate the vast and lavish genius of rap if two turntables and a microphone just isn’t enough. Zion I have much love for the hip-hop community and their music represents that vividly. They dedicated a song on this album to the genre reminiscent of Common's I Used to Love H.E.R.
, and apparently the duo knew quite well what competition they were up against; the song, Bird’s Eye View
, is a gem and helped my “love at first listen” along nicely. It sounded fluid and intelligent and since I started listening to rap I’ve been looking for a sound like that. Do you enjoy the savvy live instrument style and introspective, street-smart lyricism of The Roots? If so then trust me, Zion I is worth a shot.
In case you’re wondering, Zion I aren’t a rip-off of that popular Philly band I mentioned; their songs adhere to the modern rap taste for bass – most of these instruments were probably generated on a computer program, but that gives them a smooth fine-tuning and Zion I’s signature sound which will always be rap at heart. The duo recruited an impressive guest lineup including Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli, Gift of Gab (of Blackalicious fame) and none other than Del tha Funkee Homosapien to complete an already handsome entourage. All of the cameo verses are top notch, but the star of this album is undoubtedly MC Zumbi, the other half of Zion I and also their unmistakable voice. His penetrating delivery brings perceptive and sometimes heavily but righteously critical words to the table, and they’re potently delicious. Zumbi’s chemistry with AmpLive is not reckonable, they go together like white and rice. Thematically, “True & Livin’” brings up such subjects as the group’s love for their West Coast home, poisonous consumerism that’s destroying it, romantic love, and the hip-hop culture. Zumbi’s style ranges from soothing, laid-back narrative (smokin’ tunes) to rousing and anthem-oriented, and everything in between.
It’s pretty long with eighteen tracks, but never drags and always throws up an interesting new change when the formula starts to get stale, and thankfully it doesn’t. Zion I’s music is very spiritual in origin and as a result, not very gloomy. Most of the time I can relate different music to the similar effects of a drug, and “True & Livin’” recalls the pleasant state of mind under the influence of ecstasy, a befitting word I might add. If you’ve never tried it, imagine the wind making you blush because your nerves are so sensitive to euphoria. Zion I’s music is blissful and elegant; self-assured too, these songs portray extreme confidence without saying a word. A lot of rap is like that though, right, very ostentatious and macho. So you say, but you can’t compare Zion I to any generalization because their broad dynamic bleeds originality. The duo like sung choruses, the bass guitar, loud and jazzy horns, among many other variations. From the dreamy Bird’s Eye View
to Oh Lawd Blues
’ crisp acoustic riff and beautiful, aching “caged-bird” vocals, “True & Livin’” set the bar impressively high. Highly recommended to anyone with a thirst for novelty.