Seems we’ve reached an impasse in hip-hop’s never-ending navel-gazing; the complaints about the genre’s clichés have become every bit as hoary and tired as the clichés themselves. Yes, hip-hop wallows in senseless violence, misogyny and bigotry, we know that. Yes, yes, it obsesses over money and guns and sex, and, uh, money. It does all of those things — except, of course, when it does none of them, when it wallows in nonviolence instead, and positivity and earnestness and, er, not money. Then it’s conscious rap or backpacker rap or indie rap. By any name, it’s too preachy and dull for the masses.
So goes the cliché, anyway. Still, with every left-of-center release, hope lingers that somehow this think-hop will vault into the mainstream and take down all the four-bit gangstas on the radio (or die tryin’) — and someday that might just happen. If it does, though, Zion I ain’t gonna be leading the way. Because as solid as it is, the Oakland duo — mic man Zion and beatmaker Amp Live — lives up to every detractor’s preconceived notion of indie rap. They’re relentlessly upbeat, occasionally political (“Warrior’s Dance” features nods to Stokely Carmichael, George Jackson and Huey Newton) and ultimately fixated on their own defining progressiveness. (Gang killers acting like gorillas, Zion complains on “Cheeba Cheeba,” which features a guest spot from Freestyle Fellowship legend Aceyalone. Dropped a little math, but y’all still couldn’t feel us.)
Not that any of that matters, of course. DWS wasn’t made for the mainstream; it was made for the backpackers. More musically adventurous than Zion I’s 2000 debut, the album features live instrumentation throughout, with Amp using everything from fuzzed-out guitars to classical strings to keep the record moving. That said, songs such as “Finger Paint” and “Flow” stand out not for the instrumental performances as much as the way Amp lets them linger in the background, resisting the temptation to bump up that cello (Hey! Check it out!) at the expense of Zion’s lyrics.
After all, it is those lyrics — along with the MC’s relaxed flow — that make DWS worth buying. I’m hot under the collar, he boasts, but melanin keeps me cool. Elsewhere he admonishes, Don’t be watching me when you got someplace to be/Suck a nipple, blink, and you’re old, gray and crippled. And with “Sorry,” Zion delivers an unmistakably sincere apology to screwed-over family, friends and former lovers, making for the most strikingly introspective hip-hop track this side of Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet.” It is, as the album’s title (not coincidentally) puts it, quite deep. Which is why it’ll no doubt be celebrated by the backpackers — and pretty much no one else.