Probably the best rapper in Houston, Z-Ro continues to teeter on the brink of fame. The fact that Rap-A-Lot has decided to release his official follow-up to last year's excellent Let the Truth Be Told on the same day as Jay-Z's Kingdom Come will probably keep it that way. It's too bad, really, because I'm Still Livin' is just as good -- if not better -- than its predecessor. Though it has a noticeably different vibe to it, the record continues the tradition of street-conscious, razor-sharp lyrical displays that Z-Ro has kept up since his recorded career began nearly a decade ago.
Most of I'm Still Livin' is produced by Houston icon Mike Dean, but the record has a very distinctive sound. On "Continue 2 Roll," guest singer Tanya Herron's contemplative vocals add to the feeling that the album, hard as any gangsta record, has an unusual sonic ancestor: '80s vocal pop. The next song, "T.H.U.G. (True Hero Under God)," is flush with synths and drum machines, seemingly confirming the suspicions. In case you didn't get the message, closer "Battleground" samples Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield."
But the juxtaposition ends up working beautifully. Z-Ro's music has always had a melancholy to it that fits right in with the bittersweet tone of the music he's using, and if it doesn't feel quite as powerful as the modern blues of his last record, at least the evolution seems natural and results in a unique product. Plus, even when the beats falter, Z-Ro is there to rescue every song in trouble. On "Love Ain't Live," he spits a great chorus with a rapid fire delivery: "This one is to my real niggas that hate me every single day/ because of you I make the world pay./ Ain't got no love for nothin'/ they got love for me 'cause love ain't live/ they don't love me, they love my nickels and dimes." The rapper's flow and lyrics are so strong, it's hard to imagine any beat or weak hook he couldn't save.
Though the general emotional nature of his music has little precedent in mainstream hip-hop, his talent is displayed so well in every song that it's hard to imagine anyone who cares about hip-hop not enjoying his output. So even if he never breaks through, at least he's putting out great records. And if fulfilling commercial potential means Kingdom Come, I'll pick artistic potential every time.