Friday, May 24, 2013

Z Dreams

Z-Man's a dude with a large catalog, so you're probably not really thirsting for new material from him like you might be for other artists who maybe even aren't quite as good. Even if you remove the disappointing side projects, like One Block Radius, Z has underground albums and cameos, and mp3-only joints for days. But, on the other hand, there's always more room for more Z. And in that spirit, I present to you: Concrete Dreams.

Concrete Dreams is a compilation album assembled by somebody named Bigg Tae, who I've never heard of, and featuring a long list of artists I've mostly never heard of, though they all seem to be from the Bay. It's a CD-only release from 2010, and I just randomly came across it and took notice because Z-Man's name appeared on the roster. I did also recognize one or two other artists who appear: Eddie K, Bored Stiff and Akil - assuming it's the same Akil. But it's mostly a big, long list of MCs (most of these songs feature at least 3-4 MCs per track, so there's a ton of guys) I've never heard of.

Z-Man appears on here four times, including one solo song, though. So if you're just picking this up for him, you're at least getting some decent Z for your buck. And if you're a big Bored Stiff fan, they're on here even more often.

(And just as an aside, the track-listing on the back cover and the one on the inside sleeve are different. The one on the back seems to be the accurate one.)

Now, to be clear, this Bigg Tae guy gets "arrangement" credit throughout; but he's not the producer here. Most of that's done by DJ 360, with one song apiece by JR Rotem, Big Shawn and D Whiz sprinkled in. I don't really know who 360 or D Whiz are, but Big Shawn's a member of Bored Stiff and JR Rotem's actually a big, commercial producer who does stuff for artists like Xzibit and Nicki Minaj. Most of the production, however, could be described simply as generic... passable, but too simplistic to really capture your attention. A few moments stand out: "Tonight" is a remake of DJ Quik's "Tonite," so that grabs you right away. But then you realize it just isn't as good as Quik's, so you'd be better off listening to the original. "Pay Back (Frisco Style)" is another one that stands out, as it liberally uses James Brown's "The Payback," just like EPMD, King T, and so many others before them. It may not get points for originality, but it's a classic for a reason and so still sounds dope regardless.

But, no, there are also some 360 beats that do sound superior to the majority. Entries like "Progression" and the Marvin Gaye sampling "Stay Alive" have a lusher, more involving feel. A lot of the songs seem to boil down to a steady, unexciting drum beat and two constant loops over the top. You know, the kind of song that goes "boop boop ba boop" endlessly and starts to make you go a little stir crazy. But basically when the samples get larger, or another couple elements are thrown into the mix (there are a bunch of R&B types singing hooks, for instance), it makes for a richer, more rewarding experience.

And fortunately, Z's solo cut is one of those moments. I mean, if you're a hardcore J5er here for Akil, you're going to be disappointed. He totally gets drowned out in posse cuts. After many listens, I'm still not sure I can pick out which verses (he has two) are his. In fact, I'm not even certain it's the same dude. Fortunately, none of that's the case with Z. It's  along parade of MCs with similar voices and flows, but Z's voice is so distinctive it immediately breaks through and says, "now listen here!" Even if you didn't get this disc as a Z fan and have no idea who he is, you'll know after listening to this album. He's the guy who stood the fuck out.

That said, does Z bring his A game here? Well, yes and no. Lyrically, he doesn't come with much on "I'm a Hustler." He sounds good, but as far as what he's saying, he just seems to be complaining about MCs being under-appreciated on the internet. On "Drink With Me," he's just on the hook, and the production's annoying, so forget that one. "Life Is What You Make It" is a little more interesting, more thoughtful, but still nothing to really get excited over.

So it's all about "Campaign or Complain," Z's solo cut, which is everything you'd hope for when picking this up. The production is hot, on the blaxploitation tip, and Z's personality is in full effect. He's sounding sick and his lyrics are tight:

"I'm still rappin' in this climate tryin' to be somebody
Rellies yellin': (you the nigga!) I can't believe nobody.
I'm jealous of nerds, jealous of Murs,
Jealous of Wale even though his shit gets on my nerves.
...Was that accurate?
Did I have to smack a bitch,
Sell my soul, turn your cipher to a sandwich?
I don't know; I'm from the 99 D,
With no overseer A&R to oversee me.
You know, ('Frisco!)
Home of the grindaholics,
In a zone, trying to roam through your rich pockets.
Your chick stopped us at the door."

The rest of this CD is okay. There are other nice little moments here and there. Bored Stiff has a couple solid songs like "The Right Way" and "Better Life." But as far as what you're really going to revisit and treasure? I'd say you'd be adding this CD to your collection for just one song. And it's worth it. It's that good.

By the way, if somebody assembled an exhaustively comprehensive, but really selective, Z-Man's Greatest Hits, I bet that album would blow a lot of unsuspecting minds.

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