You don’t have to listen to a bar of Dream.Zone.Achieve to know that Smoke DZA is from New York. A quick look at the tracklist should give you that much. Titles like “Ghost of Dipset” and “City of Dreams”, features by Cam’ron and Joey Bada$$, and production by Pete Rock and Harry Fraud all tell the story of a rap record draped in NYC. Listening to the album only deepens that sense.
But this isn’t the music of modern day New York, where the A$AP mob has infused the city’s hard edge with shades of southern hip hop. It’s not the nouveau riche dynastic New York of recent Jay-Z records, nor is it the futuristic dystopian New York of El-P’s fever dreams. It’s the New York of mid-career Wu Tang, grimy but static, and DZA spends the entirety of Dream.Zone.Achieve inhabiting a reimagined version of this world, acting wholly as though New York doesn’t have dozens of pairs of competent shoulders to hold it up these days.
DZA’s talents are obvious: his beat choices are excellent, and the entire production slate is impressively cohesive considering its variety of producers. Skittery high hats, smokey noir soul, and warbly horns fill the record. There’s little to complain about there if one forgives the fact that Pete Rock is the best producer on the album and DZA spends five minutes listing shout-outs over his beat.
Meanwhile, DZA’s voice and flow both have the potential for noteworthiness. His raps are on beat and laidback, a style that merges well with guests like Currensy, with whom he shares a penchant for wide references—Toy Story, Sharkeisha, Grand Theft Auto, and Andrew Dice Clay, to name a few—though they range from hilarious to confounding on a case by case basis. “Count Me In” features three consecutive well-constructed quatrains centered around Sean Kingston, Snoopy, and the Cosby Show, respectively. “Hearses”, on the other hand, features confoundingly disconnected lines like “You a bird ass nigga, you be shittin’ in your nest” followed soon after by a reference to Liu Kang’s fatality in Mortal Kombat.
Depsite the oddball clunker like “You know I love you like Chinese food”, DZA never sounds corny. His voice just lacks personality, to the point where you can’t tell if it’s a sly joke or if he actually doesn’t know how “Banksy” and “hearse” are supposed to be pronounced. His feature choices are wise, but it further accentuates this dearth. Wiz Kalifa and Currensy both outpace him on “Legends in the Making (Ashtray Pt. 2)”, and a relatively sedate Action Bronson tops him with goofball lines like “I keep an extra piece like trannies” on highlight “Elks Lodge”. Raekwon could have killed a track like “Zone”, but DZA can’t quite seem to pull it off.
DZA’s 2012 album Rugby Thompson suffered similarly, but it also featured some conceptual flair, which is really where Dream.Zone.Achieve falls apart. DZA’s concepts rarely stray from the standards: being real, putting swag rappers on notice, and getting money, the latter of which we can thank for “Tropicana Roses”, a serious contender for laziest rap chorus of the year, which simply goes “Fuck bitches / Get money.” It’s paint-by-numbers Harlem rap from the Jim Jones era, and frankly, in 2014 there’s just too much going on in hip hop for this to carry much sway, leaving Dream.Zone.Achieve a too-long-by-half 80-minute course in hard-nosed Harlem rap with plenty of good beats but without a distinct voice to guide it.
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// Notes from the Road
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