Review: Zion-I & the Grouch, “Heroes in the City of Dope”

Zion-I & the Grouch
Heroes in the City of Dope

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Backpackers have a hard time authenticating themselves in the rap game. They’re less parochial than their gangsta counter parts. They seem smart, nerdy and non-threatening, and often appeal to teenage suburbanites or college kids who want to sample ghetto life without leaving their white caves. They get no love from BET or the dominant hip-hop radio stations. Above all, they’re not speaking through the filter of what a rapper is supposed to be, i.e. a flossy playa or criminally-minded thug who wears 10 Gs around his neck and spends a lot of time trying not to look soft in front of his padnas. It’s difficult to recast those stereotypes without sacrificing street cred — hence the timeworn division between “underground” and “commercial” hip-hop — and few artists are brave enough to try. The exception would be Zion-I,
the internationally-known Oakland duo that’s spent the last two years trying to carve out a space for itself in the Bay Area’s hyphy movement while maintaining its politically-edged lyrics and “conscious” sensibility. The group’s Heroes in the City of Dope, a collabo with Grouch of Living Legends, shows that MC Zion and producer Amp Live are fumbling to find a happy middle ground.

The line “City of Dope” comes from an old Too $hort song of the same name, which kicks off with the lyric, “City of dope, I call it Oak/Can’t be broke, selling coke.” Since intertextuality usually amounts to genuflection in hip-hop, it’s obvious that Zion is trying to situate himself in a lineage of Oakland rap hustlers that began with $hort. At the same time he’s updating the meaning of “dope,” which has several iterations in hip-hop culture. Zion and Grouch appear to be casting themselves as heroes who emerged from a dope-ass city, rather than heroes with a mission to rescue Oakland from dope dealers. Most of the tracks on City of Dope put a positive spin on the “town” theme. The idea is that Zion and Grouch, despite being torchbearers for political correctness, still feel a sense of rootedness in Oakland and a certain affinity to the hyphy movement. Yet they’re also trying to go beyond it. These guys insist they’re capable of “going dumb” without actually going dumb.

Zion-I is known as the first “conscious” rap outfit to really break out an olive branch with the hyphy movement, given their recent collaborations with the Team and Mistah F.A.B. (The latter appears on “Hit ‘Em,” one of City of Dope’s strongest tracks.) Still, the musicianship in Amp Live’s beats — indeed, the beats on this album are beautiful — and the morality of the emcees’ lyrics make the trio seem a little too schoolmarm-ish to fully cross over. (For example, on “Too Much,” Zion castigates a teenage schoolgirl for acting too promiscuous.) And even though a lot of backpacker heads seem to have a real hard-on for the Grouch, his voice doesn’t have the right pitch or rhythm for hyphy.

Overall, City of Dope doesn’t cohere as well as Zion-I’s two previous albums, 2003’s Deep Water Slang V.2.0 and last year’s True & Livin’. But it certainly beats the hell out of a lot of Top 40 hip-hop. In comparison to P-Diddy’s self-aggrandizing Press Play, Yung Joc’s utterly disappointing New Joc City and Rick Ross’ vapid Port of Miami — all poised to become three of the year’s most successful rap albums — at least Zion-I and the Grouch are going in the right direction.

— Rachel Swan

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