Gunshot Jazz: The Return of Zilla Rocca & The Shadowboxers

Alex Koenig doesn’t point fingers when they’re in someone else’s pockets The coming of age story has become so popular in art that it risks becoming trite. It survives because of...
By    April 3, 2014


Alex Koenig doesn’t point fingers when they’re in someone else’s pockets

The coming of age story has become so popular in art that it risks becoming trite. It survives because of the simple maxim that the journey is more important than the destination. Consider noir-hop project No Vacation For Murder by Zilla Rocca and the Shadowboxers as a magnifying glass held to that maxim, and is the clear and sobering sequel to the Shadowboxers’ last album The Slow Twilight. For twilight is replaced by morning, when the rum wears off, the cologne turns to musk, and all that’s left is a forehead lump and a three-figure bar tab receipt. “Independence is my temptress,” Zilla raps on the first verse amid a somber ensemble of horns and plucked strings, as if to pull the shades of daylight open.

The record is religious, but only in a figurative sense; it’s about isolation as the temple, and thoughts as Holy Scripture. The way Aesop Rock used his own oppressive emotional landscape on 2012’s Skelethon is how Zilla crystallizes his revenge plots on adversaries, which leads to the grand divide between the two rappers: for Zilla, it’s easier to be angry at something, someone—anyone—other than yourself. “My venom’s detoxed, the reverie stops when your enemy drops,” he bellows on “47 Ronin,” a callous admission for someone in a tug-of-war with his own morality.

Though it’s enticing to get lost in the moral message when it’s snapshotted with picture-perfect drama. Two-timing crooks and conniving chanteuses enter from stage left; crime narratives are scalpel-sharp rhymes for cool cats and reservoir dogs. Producer Blurry Drones, behind the boards of eight of the twelve tracks, auteurs a bleak and beautiful sound that is unified, but never one-track minded. He unpredictably summons the immortal Geechi Suede of Camp Lo to trade bars with Zilla over teardrop guitars and spy-suave hi-hats on “Chi-Town Drumroll.” “Shoot The Piano Player” benefits from a slow-rolling rhythm and flickering piano loop as Zilla and Has-Lo aid and abet a first-degree murder following a third-eye strategy.

As if succeeding on a perfectly laid out plan could guarantee serenity when the job is done. Zilla and Drones are now in their early thirties. Their quarter-life crisis may be over, but not enough time has passed since then to expunge their tainted memories and guarantee a blessed future. They know that the war between good and evil is fraught with choosing the proper mercenaries. As long as water is a necessity of life, there will always be “Fake Surfers” looking to exploit it. The reason casual fans and hip-hop heads will return to No Vacation for Murder isn’t only because its creators execute their fully formed ideas, but because Zilla and Drones make them need more. Inducing the listeners’ greed is the duo’s greatest gift.

There are moments of hedonism, like when Roc Marciano reads from black market books on “Young Blood” to teach the value of mastering a drug deal. “Death of Unemployed Actors” finds Zilla indulging a cold plate of payback like it was soft-serve ice cream. “You wouldn’t ask a vulture to look past a carcass / every friend betrays me sooner or later, and every enemy becomes a friend or a lover.” While welcomed, the hard-boiled testimonies are fortunately tempered by introspective revelations, making the record’s poignant final third Zilla’s opportunity to write his wrongs. The concessions within “Stainless Wisdom” expose the narrator at his most battered and broken-down: “You are your circle, so I was guilty too / Immature with a smug-ass view, the leader of a punk-ass crew.”

The final song, “Human Dominos,” sees the virtues initially dismissed as weaknesses on the first song. Using the ripple effect of dominos as a metaphor for the perils of falling in line, it explores the joy of being an individual and not following the herd, and the stings of doing the opposite. The first part of Open Mike Eagle’s chorus, “Don’t fall apart cause I’ve got no heart / got no one to make me cry,” warns of the result of not being able to count on yourself when everyone’s got your number.

To evade the fate of the human domino is the culmination of the new Shadowboxer code, and the end of the duo’s chapter. Notice the term “chapter” and not “story,” because No Vacation For Murder hardly feels like a conclusion. The youthful duo that spawned the LP will grow older and wiser. Their children shall be born and middle-age qualms eventually beckon. It’s easy to resist change, and it’s difficult to go along with it. But so long as one of the finest rap records of the year illustrates that there’s no vacation for murder, then there’s no vacation for death. Cherish every transition of life, as you can only fight for them when you’re alive.

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