You can find Doc Zeus on the street, pushing those CDRs.
Nobody likes to talk about the effects of failure—certainly not in rap music, a genre in which the basic iconography is built upon achieving one’s dreams by any means necessary. Rap music has always thrived on wish-fulfillment fantasy: That a poor kid from nowhere can rise above humble roots to live a lavish lifestyle that is the envy of all. By straightforward definition, a “famous” artist is somebody who has a level of genuine success in their life—a rapper who is lucky enough to get their music on the radio is a person that can be counted as one of the most successful people in their field.
It’s true that hip-hop is ripe with stories of struggle to achieve dreams but these narratives usually conclude with a happy ending—the luxury cars, the marbled estates, the beautiful women and the stacks of cash that accompany all the hard work they’ve put in to achieve their dreams in life. Mainstream hip-hop ignores the fact that the vast majority of people who dream about being famous simply will not. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves to make us feel good about the 9-to-5 mediocrity (or worse) that awaits us when we finally give up the daydream and reluctantly set up a LinkedIn profile.
Queens veteran rapper J-Zone is fed up with that lie and is ready to call bullshit on the entire enterprise of the rap industry. He distrubutes his derision equally: He spits venom towards both fashionista fuckbois trolling 90s rap music as they transparently seek fame on social media, and jaded old men who post ALL CAPS RANTS about how Young Thug’s shirt dresses are an Illuminati conspiracy to ruin the pureness of the culture through homosexual indoctrination.
Zone thinks both millennials and Generation X-ers have their priorities profoundly fucked up as they engage both naked egotism and a pointless culture war. Meanwhile, hip-hop culture continues to get gentrified by a blatantly selfish music industry plundering the last bit of profit away from their artists. It’s all a fucking joke to him on his brilliantly caustic and hilarious new album, Fish-N-Grits. The album seeks to shove a middle finger directly into the eye of the hypocrisy of it all.
If you are asking yourself, “Who the fuck is J-Zone?!?!,”or more accurately, “Who the fuck is this bitter old man to be such a hating-ass hater?!?!,” that’s exactly Zone’s point. J-Zone emerged onto the rap scene in 1999 with a unique, colorful brand of sex-obsessed comedy rap that never quite fit in with the heavily segregated arena of underground hip-hop. Despite producing one of rap music’s most underrated catalogs, Zone was never able to find an audience beyond a minuscule niche of a niche of underground rap fans.
Zone’s overt juvenilia and obsession with all things raunchy ran contrary to the ideological lines set up by underground rap fans of the era. Zone’s latent appreciation for Trick Daddy and Master P was in direct opposition to lyrics-first true school-ism of the era that made stars out of more serious artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and The Roots. Meanwhile, Zone’s fondness for idiosyncratic sampling—blending obscure funk 45s, sex education records, and French accordion tracks (often on the same song), would make him an impossible sell to Cash Money Records fans who might naturally appreciate the humor in his records.
Despite this small cult following, Zone would quit music in 2009 and attempt to enter the work force in his 30s, only to find his unique qualifications weren’t necessarily appreciated by the average company’s HR department. In 2011, he would write his wonderfully scathing self-published autobiography, Root For The Villain: Rap, Bull$hit & A Celebration Of Failure, a book that might be one of hip-hop’s most accomplished and hysterical tomes. He would return to making music in 2013 to release his comeback album, Peter Pan Syndrome, a brutally honest LP about the panicked desperation of your mid-30s after your dreams have fallen apart and you are forced to ponder your future. The core theme of J-Zone’s entire career has been about dealing with disappointment. There’s no other artist more qualified to correctly diagnose the hypocrisy of everybody surrounding him than J-Zone.
Fish-N-Grits is the type of record that can only be produced by an artist with no skin in the game and no fucks left to give. He is equally content to call out entitled Brooklyn hipster girls for their noxious classism as he is to drag rich black celebrities having the money but not necessarily the nerve to say “fuck you” to the system that supports injustice. Zone fears no Bey Hive and isn’t afraid to burn bridges. His outsider status has provided him the ultimate freedom of immediate honesty. Fish-N-Grits isn’t afraid to offend, provoke, anger or upset you in Zone’s simple quest to produce laughs. There’s no record quite like it that has been released this year.
The album’s opening skit, “Shut up, Make Music (Swagboi vs. Purist)” sets the acid-tipped tone for the entire album as Zone swiftly kebobs fabricated ideological lines that many fans keep insisting upon between the golden age and the popular music of today. In fact, a brazen disgruntlement with the modern state of hip-hop culture is a recurring theme throughout the album.
Zone will blast desperate “rap squeegee men” accosting tourists on the street with their cheaply produced CDRs for disrespecting the craft. He then takes shots at faded hip-hop moguls for hypocritically complaining about gentrifying “culture vultures” after their music has fallen out of favor with the public.
You might think this album is merely the bitter work of a nasty underground wash out who never made it in the industry—too didactic and judgmental to resonate with audiences (and you aren’t necessarily wrong)—but what makes this album work is how genuinely funny and well-written the songs are. From the production to the instrumentation to the song craft, Fish-N-Grits is easily one of the best albums released in all of music this year.
Zone writes observational humor in rap better than pretty much anybody, and songs like “Robbin’ Brooklyn Hipster Chicks,” “Go Back To Sellin’ Weed,” and “Time For A Crime Wave” speak in hilarious detail about life in gentrified urban America. As hostile as Zone is to modern rap, he saves his true ire for his beloved New York City that is rapidly becoming alien to people like himself: People that have been pushed out by classist hipsters with no real connection to the people of color that lived there before.
Meanwhile, Zone’s craftsmanship as a musician has never been better. The album is laced with intricately produced jazz and funk-influenced original breakbeats that offer a nice pacing to the album. During his brief retirement, J-Zone set out to learn how to play the drums and you can sense how dedicated he is to becoming a quality drummer. Instrumental tracks like “Stick Up” and “Cigarettes” sound like they were dug up from asbestos-infested basement record shops despite being composed of Zone’s live instrumentation.
More than anything, though, Fish-N-Grits is just a deeply original album. J-Zone has always lived in a lane completely of his own paving—far too weird and hostile to sell to anybody—but Zone might have crafted a true masterpiece at this state of his career. There are no angry thirty-something comedy rappers that can make songs that are equal parts poignant dissections of the evils of urban redevelopment as they are funny laments about the sad state of the hip-hop industry. J-Zone might be an angry, angry man but you get the sense that it comes from a real sense of pain. What’s more, it might be exactly what’s called for in today’s America. The world needs more mad rappers.