from the shelf #002,

z-ro tolerance cover

we have The King of The Ghetto’s seventh studio album. I was looking for other reviews of this online, and it was kind of a joke. A bunch of message board numbers and a bunch of places selling chopped and screwed versions of it (of which there are more than a few). But only a few selling it at high import level prices, and certainly no words devoted to describing it.

Sure, you have The New York Times calling him one of “America’s most underrated rappers”. But whenever you mention his name to people with a passing familiarity with hip hop radio, they recognize his name along with a bunch of other clanky and lumbering drug rappin fiends that would best go unremembered, and they dash him off as another of those rappers who have to chop and screw their voice to be interested. Left in such a precarious state, this unrepressed musician will probably be One Deep for life.
z-ro with chain

And, partially, it’s because he doesn’t need a producer. Producing almost all the beats for himself and the carnival he invites over to the studio, or his crib, for each mixtape and album release, this is another fact that goes unmentioned in his reviews.

Another thing that often goes mentioned is the almost unconscious superiority of a Ro release compared to another release by just some random H-town rapper. And, believe me, as a well dressed kid who looked like he had money walking downtown Houston’s streets, it was not uncommon to get asked by a hustler to buy their mixtape. Among the many names that flitted through the street drama so much more real that wrestling, Z-Ro has pretty much been the only one to lay a major deal, and still remain king of the trunk filled with mixtapes and subwoofers.

The Reviews do not mention this aspect of the man in high enough detail, I must say. All the reviews do is say that he makes the best music of its genre. I can’t imagine what someone uninitiated into his career would do looking at an album that came out after the one I’m reviewing. I mean, this is the rapper who released consecutive albums with the titles of drugs over the last handful of years.

Crack came out, Heroine was heralded but much delayed (for almost two years) which allowed the mixtape release Codeine and even the full length Cocaine to come out before the much anticipated and double disc long Heroine finally hit the streets. And, since then, he’s unleashed Meth and Angel Dust into the world. Check his really long discography I abridged, even just during the five years that he put out those five releases.

It’s gotten to the point that unless you are willing to accept drugged out and pained out music, you know from the title of his albums whether or not you’re gonna listen to him. And, the most enduring part of his style is, although the music always has some filth from the streets, it’s always about walking past it. About becoming stronger because you’ve endured bullshit. Ro never glorifies his bullshit and drug dealing in his music, just that he worked hard and made his way past it. Same as in his beats, always with the clank of the Southern electronic drums, but also dressed in very sensible chord structures. He even sings surprisingly well in his songs to make them much more coherent. And he is not afraid to call people out for being hoes.

His music then becomes kind of a social test: do you accept that drugs can exist in a world with good people in them as well? Will you pick up that cd labeled Angel Dust and just assume that it’s shit? Will you flush that toilet without ever noticing the beautifully prepared ship floating on the water instead?

Ah, but I’m supposed to be talking about a specific Z-Ro album from my shelf, huh? I think that preface about Z-Ro the rapper was necessary for starting this out, though, because this is an album of circumstance. The last release after Z-Ro’s amazing and local music watershed album Life, KMJ Records (his first major label, and a label about whom almost no information currently exists), he had this collection of odds and ends of unused songs and a bunch of guest material to fill out his last contractual release for them before he could sign a much larger deal with Rap-a-lot Records. He would go on from life to talk about the specific life of Joseph W. McVey (his given name), but his best album would probably be that album of protest and doing righteous from poverty and isolation that he released while in prison, I’m Still Livin, a certified classic from whoever’s heard it. And when reviewed by allmusic, they damn it with indiscriminate and vague praise. It’s infuriated to read such a positive review by a review site that would give a mediocre jazz session a four paragraph long review, but the protest song of being profiled by police released while serving time on exaggerated drug claims gets the mention of the first and third songs being the very excellent. Did they listen to the rest!?!

Ah, but I didn’t choose to review that one thirty minutes ago. That arbitrary choice was Tolerance. This one, well, let’s just say it’s not the most memorable of Ro’s releases, and I only say that with a hint of disapproval because it isn’t the best, but for very interesting reasons. Produced with Daz Dillinger and featuring more than one guest on a song, this is the album that will make someone with good musical taste agree with their gut instinct that Ro is just another drug head.

And it’s for good reason. He hangs around with rappers quick to call their girl a bitch, which makes his own lyrics about losing trust in people make a little bit more sense: he has a tragic nobility to his verses that his homies don’t. This is the album that proves he was just languishing around the wrong crew at the time.

[mad shout-outs to bluntsville radio tx on youtube, for putting all this great music online in easily searchable archives! He even uses this album to delineate a shift in his Z-Ro music, the major rap-a-lot records deal album The Life of Joseph W. McVey beginning after this one.]

It gets even more believable that he’s the one who should save the game, because he features many decent female MCs on the tracks. And not simply those who talk about how hot they are or how many men they can get tethered, they are ones who rhyme about making the grind every day. And when they brag, well, it’s about everyone at the grocery store remembering their name,

and people knowing that their parties are the livest on the block, and that they get so crunk.

And when they are rapping about how sexy they are, it’s how you have to work right if you want to get with someone. The old musical tradition of shaping dating norms continues here, on music played on dance floors, and Ro stands as the head noddin man behind all of it. It still reeks of chauvinism around the edges, but it leaves the image of the chauvinists not talking to people when the track ends.

And Ro even raps, between the moments of how important it is to have a gun when rapping with his friends, about him never having to murder anyone, and that none of his weapons have ever saved him when alone. He stands on the cusp of rejecting so many of the unhealthy trends in hip hop towards a righteous life.

And he did, for a little bit, tolerate the gangsta stuff here. It was his last release for local labels, and has a street style his own music would veer away from. Focusing more on the storytelling of having guests instead of a mob, he would go on to put much more time in all of his releases. A record label from which he recently released his last album, Angel Dust, for.

z-ro with the termination of rap a lot records agreement

And now, well, it’s back to the story that Tolerance ended, which has its own ending. He also got a way to say goodbye to fellow rapper Big Mello, who saw his end in the rap game a little earlier, in a verse he recorded with him but never released.

This would be the only time label permission would allow both of them to be on the same track. And he gave the world one more reason to tolerate a thug.