The Bay Area has been responsible for a lot of quality hip-hop in 2012. With a great yet often forgotten record from Gift of Gab, E-40 releasing another trilogy of LPs, his pair of collaborative albums with Too $hort (who also dropped a solo disc), and The Coup also getting in the mix, the Bay has had a lot to get hyphy to this year. Zion I bring electro-heavy production and positive raps on their 7th album as a duo (9th if you include the 2 LPs they did with The Grouch), ShadowBoxing.
Those expecting a Wu-Tang-inspired record–due to the album’s title–are going to be disappointed, because the similarities end there. Producer/DJ AmpLive has always used electronic influences in his production, but on their latest record, he dives head first into a pool of synthesizers and glow sticks. “Human Being” features extremely heavy 808 kicks and a trance breakdown (and let’s not forget a Bassnectar remix as a bonus track). On stand out “Joe Frazzzier” Amp drops a full-fledge trance beat, and hits harder than the boxer the song is titled after. And “Re-Load” could very well be worked into any rave playlist.
Personally I’ve always listened to Zion I for AmpLive’s production first, and Zumbi’s raps are just icing on the cake. For those who are alienated by Amp’s extreme electro productions, they will still enjoy Zumbi’s positive, everyman raps. Zumbi’s lyrical achievement comes in the form of the album’s most fleshed-out track, “Life’s Work,” in which he raps about overcoming relationship struggles. Zumbi does get outshined on “Trapped Out” by Dust, who delivers a flawless double-time flow. But other than that, he manages to hold his own with The Grouch and Eligh on closer “We Don’t.”
This is an album backpackers and purists are going to absolutely loathe. But those people tend to take hip-hop too seriously anyway, and try to force it inside of a box. Zion I certainly isn’t re-inventing the hip-hop wheel with ShadowBoxing (in fact countless artists are rapping over electronic production–in the past couple of years alone Jay-Z, Kanye, J. Cole and Lupe all rapped dub-step beats). But Zion I manages to do what few artists are able to do, combine these genres with enjoyable results.
– Zach Gase