[1 February 2009]
Underground legends Zion I open their sixth full-length LP with a pretty straightforward, fiery declaration that gives the album its name: “This system does not work for us, so we must take this system over and make it work for us.” Though even two years ago that would have slipped by, another marker of the vaguely leftist, Afrocentric politics of a lot of rap’s backpacker margins, such a statement sticks out now, in the age of Obama.
You have to wonder what those in the alternative black community who rail against the system will turn to now. Certainly there are mitigating factors—Obama is only half-black, and the son of an immigrant, not the great grandson of a slave—and anyone of a particularly progressive bent will still likely have a bone to pick with the man in four years’ time (this is still America, after all), but if this really is a step towards a post-racial America, this kind of statement won’t be so easy to make anymore: it’s easy to point to institutionalized racism, especially to a largely black audience, but are rappers going to be so free with taking on, say, class dynamics that transcend racial lines?
It’s something worth keeping an eye on, though if you’re looking for answers, you’d be better of skipping The Take Over. Despite the political overtones of their declaration of intent, Zumbi and AmpLive seem to be far more concerned with taking over the dance floor than the halls of power.
That’s apparent the instant the thumping, tribal drums of “Geek to the Beat” kick in hot on the heels of the intro. A rumbling track full of primal screams and a low-end computer-voiced chorus, “Geek” rides mostly on Amp’s hyphy production chops, Zumbi’s lyrics perfectly serviceable but mostly just standard hip-hop braggadocio, none more ironic than when he professes that he’d “rather rabble rouse”.
That has been true of Zion I in the past, but Take Over finds them at their most emptily hyphy, far more style than substance; in that sense it’s almost an analogue to Blackalicious’ unfortunate 2005 disc The Craft, the time when a respected West Coast underground group lets their pop/dancey urges, always present but contained, overwhelm their less-energetic-but-more-thoughtful roots. That certainly seems to be the case in the title track, where Zumbi professes “We want to blow it up ... now we pump it up / boom-bap music blood is running through my veins / never been afraid / ain’t scared to make a change” right before the chorus pipes up with a soulful though entirely unsympathetic “Doesn’t matter what you think feel free you can hate on me / I’m in deep to a beat and the music’s taking over me”.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, though it’s a good damn thing Zumbi has AmpLive working the beats: as the former gets simpler, the latter seems to get more adventurous and layered—after the splash he made with last year’s MGMT and Radiohead remixes, Take Over can occasionally feel like his coming out party, nowhere more so than the synthy, robotic “DJ DJ”, where Zumbi is basically reduced to a sample in Amp’s luscious dance track. Though not quite as pervasive, Amp is similarly dominating on most of the album, from the handclap soul of “Coastin’” to the easy, AM radio feel of “Radio”. Hell, he almost even manages to save the absolutely ridiculous, vacuous sex metaphor of “Country Baked Yams”—not helped at all by the presence of Devin the Dude—with a Southern-fried video game touch.
It only ever really feels like a true collaboration on the album’s two-part centerpiece, “Caged Bird Part 1” and “In the Mornin’ - Caged Bird Part 2”. AmpLive keeps it understated and old school, mixing boom-bap with some well-placed strings, while Zumbi, with some help from Brother Ali, sets his sights on something higher than a bouncing booty, and gains some life for it.
There are certainly worse ways to make party music, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing, especially if Zion I is going to keep up some of its backpackery, fight-for-change rhetoric. The world doesn’t really need another rap group telling people to get down rather than stand up, but as long as AmpLive is conducting, there’s going to be something worth listening to, even if it’s only while you’re shaking your rump.