The voice is a lonely foghorn, a miles-deep burned-out baritone moan that seems to radiate the wisdom of hard-earned experience. It’s a beautiful voice, melodious and passionate and capable of bluesy catharsis or gospel-style uplift. And here’s what the owner of that voice uses it to express, over and over: “How y’all doing, but fuck all y’all / Don’t walk up on me too quick cuz I don’t trust all y’all.” That, in a nutshell, is Z-Ro, the great Houston rapper who, for decades now, has been amassing a fervent cult following by lamenting, with great depth and passion, how other people ain’t shit. Some of Z-Ro’s biggest songs are about crooked cops or dealing drugs, but his real great subject is the sort of existential dread that comes from being unable to trust anyone else. And his real real great subject is how other people ain’t shit. And now all those other people have finally gotten to him. Earlier this year, Z-Ro turned 40. And last week, he released No Love Boulevard, his 21st solo album — and that’s not counting all the mixtapes and EPs and collaborative albums that he’s released since his 1998 debut. And he says it’s his last. He’s done.
Z-Ro hasn’t always been all alone. In the late ’90s, he was part of the Screwed Up Click, one of the many Houstonians who would rap on local hero DJ Screw’s slowed-to-a-crawl mixtapes. (Z-Ro has said that people used to complain to Screw about him, saying that he rapped too fast, which is fun to think about.) Later, he formed the late-’90s/early-’00s group Guerrilla Maab and released three underground albums. Eventually, he and another Guerrilla Maab member, his cousin Trae, split off and formed ABN, which stood for Assholes By Nature. Together, the two of them recorded fuck-everybody-else anthems like “No Help,” with its lyrics about wanting everyone else to leave them alone. For a long time, it seemed like these two only trusted each other. And that didn’t even last; the two have some sort of obscure long-running feud with each other now. On his new album, Z-Ro raps, “They say you and Trae Tha Truth need to squash the beef and get back to work / But I been hated so much, I don’t even see how that could work.”
Z-Ro did a lot of his best work in the mid-’00s, when he was signed to Rap-A-Lot, quite possibly the greatest regional rap indie in history. There, he had access to current Kanye West lieutenant Mike Dean back when Dean was a Rap-A-Lot in-house producer, and the two made some truly beautiful music together. But Z-Ro didn’t get along with Rap-A-Lot, and he didn’t like the idea that he should just be a regional star, promoting his music in Texas and in neighboring states like Louisiana and Arkansas but nowhere else. Still, that regional focus helped make Z-Ro a god in Houston. I’ve never seen Z-Ro live, but I’ve seen Trae at SXSW a couple of times, which means I’ve gotten to hear how a roomful of Texans reacts to “No Help.” It’s staggering. It’s like being at a Fugazi show during “Waiting Room” if a Fugazi show was somehow also church. And corny as it may be, this video of Drake playing “Mo City Don Freestyle” for a Houston crowd always makes me feel things.
For years, though, Z-Ro has been on his own, releasing stuff on his own label rather than Rap-A-Lot. The beats don’t have the syrupy, bluesy warmth that they once did, but it’s crazy just how consistent Z-Ro has been over the years. Even with its relatively workmanlike beats, the new No Love Boulevard still sounds like a classic Z-Ro album. If anything, it’s somehow even more pure in its focus. Z-Ro can rap in a brisk triple-time, but his best moments are when he’s singing. When he’s singing, he’s really singing, belting out his own hooks with teeth-gritting intensity. (He’s been threatening to release an R&B album forever, and it breaks my heart to think that it might not happen.) And this time, he’s devoted himself almost entirely to detailing exactly what is wrong with all you bitches.
To hear Z-Ro tell it, he’s never met a genuine person, a person with his best interests in mind, except maybe his daughters. Most of the time, he’s surrounded by parasites demanding to know what they can get from him. You’d think that by now people would’ve stopped asking Ro for money. He has, after all, made hundreds of songs about how he will not give you any fucking money. And yet they apparently persist. He has no friends: “Mean case of road rage in a nice ride / Rolling with my bestie, don’t have nobody on my right side.” He would like all the women in his life to kindly understand that he will be just fine if they disappear forever: “You say you want it, but you ain’t doing it right / You must be trippin’ if you think if you think Z-Ro need you in his life.” He is especially pissed off about gossip in all its forms: “When your ratchet-ass friends say something about me, you act just like God said it.” And he’s paying attention to all the people who say his music is too dark: “They say Ro ain’t the best, he is just depressed / He ain’t got it all, he is just a mess.”
It’s a hopeless bitch-session of an album, and it would sound small and petty coming from anyone else. But Z-Ro’s got that rich, resonant voice, and he knows how to make anything sound good. He really means everything he sings, and that makes the album both less and more depressing. Pettiness is probably more of a crucial part of Z-Ro’s art than it is for any other great rapper, and, just as he’s always done, he makes it sound almost profound on No Love Boulevard. There’s a throwaway line on the outro to the last song about “my-pants-too-tight-ass music,” but Z-Ro’s not even delivering it as himself; he’s playing one of the fans who want him to come back. I don’t think encroaching age is one of the reasons he’s supposedly retiring. Instead, he makes his reasoning pretty clear: He’s sick of us bitches, and he wants us out of his life.
In the Instagram post where he announced his retirement, Ro mentioned a couple of unreleased albums that are apparently coming out. And anyway, rap retirements are like pro-wrestling retirements; they almost never stick. Z-Ro is too good of a rapper to stop rapping entirely. Still, even if Z-Ro is done, he’s left behind a metric fuckton of music, even if only the most dedicated fans have heard it all. But there’s something sad about the idea of Z-Ro disappearing altogether. It’s been easy to take him for granted. He comes out once or twice a year with an album of dejected, seething rap music, and you’re always sure that there’s more on the way. But of course that couldn’t last forever. We’ve been lucky to have had Ro around as long as we have. And if this really is the last we hear of Rother Vandross, Z-Ro the Crooked, the Mo City Don, then No Love Boulevard is a good one to go out on — one more down note in a catalog full of them.
1. Montell2099 & 21 Savage – “Hunnid On The Drop”
Savage always sounds best over hazy, ethereal tracks, and this one, from a New Zealand producer who I’ve never heard of, might be the most hazy and ethereal he’s ever gotten his hands on. Also, as death threats go, “put a hole in your head like a dolphin” is adorable.
2. Towkio – “Drift”
As a pure rapper, Towkio can’t compete with his Chicago smart-kid peers. But he’s got energy for days, and now he’s got a song that takes advantage of it. Great video, too.
3. Princess Nokia – “G.O.A.T.”
There are many rap skills that can be learned, but a bust-you-in-your-face voice is one of those things you’re born with. Princess Nokia has it.
4. Aminé – “Blinds”
This kid already has a massive chart success, and now he’s also got a beat that sounds like R2D2 playing slap-bass. He’s coming along nicely.
5. Jay 305 – “All Around The World” (Feat. YG)
The summer needs West Coast barbecue music, and this summer hasn’t yet produced a finer example. Jay 305’s accent is a beautiful thing.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
How many of these Jay-Z albums do YOU own? pic.twitter.com/ADH5leBZHH
— Pixelated Boat (@pixelatedboat) July 5, 2017