The members of Zion I — Zion and Amp Live — base the title of their fourth album on the 808- and funk-guitar-driven “City of Dope” off Too Short’s defining album, 1988’s Life is … Too Short. Zion I comes forward during a time when the world identifies Oakland with the hyphy sound, something both members accept and challenge over the course of Heroes in the City of Dope.
The contrast in the title bears out in the choice of guest collaborator, the gruff Living Legends representative Grouch offsetting Zion’s smoothness. (Grouch made an album called Fuck the Dumb. You think that’s to the point enough?) That same contrast permeates the album with its point/counterpoint production. The tracks are anchored by solid drums, while the atomspherics soar: “The Faint of Heart” features synthesized swells floating around drums and handclaps, and “Lift Me Up” has a chorus and vocoder hook that rises above the track.
“Smack” exposes the album’s roots. The track borrows most directly against the Too Short legacy, featuring slow-burn Oaktown-funk underpinnings and down-turned horns that roll through the city streets. Zion and Grouch talk about the dangers of the city, right down to Bay Area hipsters, but in a manner that accepts the pitfalls of urban life while angling for a better future. “Trigger” rolls over a dub landscape while exploring the ever-reduced rights of an administration eager to implement the Homeland Security Act and renege on basic rights such as habeas corpus.
Amp Live’s production remains on point, but for a group that has effortlessly embraced drum ‘n’ bass beats and all other manners of percussion, it’s not as adventurous as previous efforts. He does a great job of appropriating the hyphy sound in spots without reducing it to a generic copy, using the talents of Mistah F.A.B. on the opener “Hit ‘Em” to nice effect. The Bay Area-crunk-meets-earnest-guitar of the concluding “Bad Lands” could even teach Shadow a lesson.
The crew does a good job of balancing the earnestness with pragmatic leanings, though “Digital Dirt,” which questions Internet social networking and ends with the promotion of typewriters and rubbing sticks for fire, seems a bit overly histrionic. The uplifting tracks more than make up for that, though, with Esthero providing a wonderful hook on “Make U Fly” and an acoustic guitar driving “10 Fingers, 10 Toes, 10 lbs., 10 oz.,” a dedication to a newborn that only the most callous can balk at.
Band (streaming audio): http://www.zionicrew.com/
Heroes in the City of Dope audio: http://www.myspace.com/zioniandthegrouch