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Sun Ui-Yum‘s adolescence was moderately comfortable.
A half-decade ago, Chicago was on fire and and Kanye remained semi-coherent and causing havoc. As 2018 teeters to a close, Chicago’s golden generation has weathered its first 21st century hip-hop life-cycle. Chance the Rapper is now, of all things, Corporate; Vic Mensa is locked into battle with a highlighter and G Herbo has skillfully circumvented every career stage in between “up-and-comer” and “Jeezy.” There is a new Chicago generation, now, but it’s detached and fragmented, its mainstream forerunners rappers who drift closer to other cities (Famous Dex) or who skipped over early regional affiliations entirely (Juice WRLD). Welcome to uncomfortable adolescence.
Five years is a long time for anything to happen to anyone — but for Z-Money, it almost meant erasure. It’s easy to forget that this is Round 2 for Z-Money, but it is. It’s another try at what should’ve happened four years ago, when he nailed multiple regional semi-classics in the space of twelve months before landing a probation violation that sent him to jail for the entirety of 2014. The ghost years in between make it difficult to sketch out a stylistic progression, but there is one, and it’s important.
Early on, the Gucci Mane lilt never left his voice; today, every record in the last year-and-a-half sounds as if it was whispered mid-trance, a monotone adhered to with religious dedication and delivered as religious prayer. Laid upon the relentless murkiness that’s trademark for ChaseTheMoney, Rio Mac, and Z-Money’s other frequent collaborators, it’s bewitching. (The momentary fade that ChaseTheMoney often employs mid-beat before sending his 808s thundering back in is one of rap’s greatest smirks).
It’s only a small step to imagine Z-Money that way, always: locked into an eternal light sway, his hand sweeps and his head nods a beat slow and a beat low. But even though the electricity here might be looped into a trance, it’s still kinetic and the skin still crackles. The singing/rapping duality is too pronounced after Future and Thug and YoungBoy Never Broke Again became the blueprints, anyway; staccato snaps into legato whenever Z-Money wants (0:48, “Bon Appetit”), effortlessly. Structure is deconstructed, casually — on “California 2 Chicago” he even starts delivering lines on top of his lines. Words are chopped and diced into smaller and smaller units (even the syllable is not safe), and they are unperturbed by your physical presence. Z-Money directs them behind you, past your back, like X-rays.
The Gucci juxtaposition is as apt as always, but more subtly so — just as with Gucci, the gravitas doesn’t come from a vocal deep-end but an almost uncomfortable comfortability. Even the Goonew whisper is vaguely Halloween, snarled through locked keyholes at listeners cowered inside. The Z-Money menace is not sharp edges glinting, but simply colored into the void. Even the whimsicality of Valee — the best and most closely intertwined comparison — is deleted.
The narrative has always been odd. Even back during Z-Money’s first brush with regional fame, the blog posts were intercut with coverage of younger faces, both smiling (Chance, Vic Mensa) and not (Herbo, Bibby), before being muted altogether by his imprisonment. And even on this most recent run, despite being a nearly singularly audacious and influential stylist, his most common casting is as accessory. He’s an appetizer to Valee on “Two 16’s,” and just as Valee dominates what should be their joint discourse, nothing off Chiraq Mogul seems to stick on a blog unless Key Glock or G Herbo shows up too. In all cases, he’s just a foil; a specimen worth a nod but not much more, another name picked off the Gucci protege assembly line.
At the end of our conversation, this is the only topic that really dislodges something deep, that sends Z-Money’s calm deadpan momentarily soaring decibels higher. But before long, Z-Money is calm again. After being wiped, after fighting back from zero, there’s only one thing to do: “keep going.”
Just wanted to start off with some of the basics, things that I don’t think are really out there in your print interviews. You’re born and raised in Chicago, West side?
Z-Money: Yeah, I was born in Chicago, West side.
Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up? What were your first memories?
Z-Money: I grew up on the West side of Chicago — the West side is different. There was a lot of stuff going on but it was more organized, it was about money getting made on blocks. That’s how I grew up, really hustling, trying to find out what way I’m trying to go with my life. And I was brought up around my older brothers and my father, which kept me on the hustle.
When you say “organized,” what exactly do you mean?
Z-Money: “Organized,” meaning…it’s not just some stuff people live on, it’s a business. Ain’t nobody going to take a chance, no one comes around shooting, on some little petty shootings. We’re making money, we’re feeding our family like this. Right now, it’s all bad. That’s how it was when I grew up, but right now, it’s not how it used to be. That’s what I rap about, stuff I went through — “Chiraq Mogul,” even that name comes from what I lived, what I’ve seen, what I’ve done.
You were just saying when you were younger you were trying to figure out what direction you wanted to go in, what you wanted to be — did you always want to be rapping?
Z-Money: Honestly, I never knew I was going to be rapping. I started off playing basketball. I was playing that from eighth grade to high school, but then my father went to jail. I didn’t have a way to get money, and I was so used to not worrying, having what I wanted.
I lived with my father, we had a big house in the suburbs. When the police came to raid the house, I was there. I didn’t want to talk to the police because I was on the phone with a girl at 4AM, and I had a bunch of police cars around — I saw the police coming, they let them in, took my father to jail. I had to move to the West side with my family, and it was a lot of people in that house who had to move, too. I had been comfortable with it, and then I dropped out of high school in tenth grade to go for my dream, to get money. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I started rapping a couple years after that.
What was it like when your father got locked up? Were you close?
Z-Money: My father was my best friend. I was one of the youngest dudes, my father had a lot of money, and he was from the same neighborhood as my mother — but my mother was doing crack, smoking crack, out here on drugs, bad. I’m in the neighborhood, everyone knew my father and everyone knew who I was, one of the youngest dudes getting money. But my mother is on the corner, high. So it put me in a weird position, it was difficult for me. I didn’t want to be in the same area my mother was at doing drugs, so I moved my mother to Arizona around 2012 and then it was like — now my mother’s gone.
She got clean when she got to Arizona, and I kept going. I started rapping in 2013. And when my father went to jail, it hurt me a lot. I didn’t have any money. I had to start grinding. My father didn’t want me doing what I was doing. He was calling me from jail, saying, get a job, do this, do that. But I can’t go that route, you know what I’m saying? I can’t go that route because I was so used to this lifestyle. My father was still in jail, but I’d purchased myself a restaurant, and my father came from jail and he didn’t have to get a job — he could just work at my restaurant. I felt good about that, having something for my father.
It must have been a lot going on and a lot to process before and after you got locked up yourself in 2014. What was that year like for you?
Z-Money: 2013, I was having a great year. I started off great when I started rapping, I had a lot of buzz, a lot of shows. But I was on probation for some stuff a while back, an old case where I kept getting in trouble because my probation officer kept seeing me on social media out of town doing shows. So from 2012 to 2014 I kept going back to jail for probation violations. I had a lot of opportunities for things to do when I was in jail and that’s what made me take music so seriously. I was getting mail from so many different people, I was doing so much. I saw my opportunities going down and I knew when I got out I was going to take things seriously.
Were you thinking about rapping when you were in jail? Were you writing?
Z-Money: Before I got locked up, I was a real rapper. I started rapping in 2012, but I was rapping every time when I was in jail. I was writing raps every day. One of the songs I wrote in jail was “Stove On,” off Heroin Bag. I’d make my own beats and just keep on writing, because in jail there are no beats to listen to — I had to make my own.
So you had been in jail before that, too?
Z-Money: Yeah, for little petty drugs cases. I had a lot of money before I started rapping, so when I started rapping, everyone wanted to hear what I had to say. I was already known in the area, and the police knew who I was from my past. I was deep in the hood and they knew who I was.
What did it feel like to get out? What was the first thing you did?
Z-Money: I got on YouTube and watched all the music videos. I did, bro, the first day I got home. But first, let me tell you how I got picked up from jail. My manager came to pick me up in the tour bus, and parked it right in front of the jail — they did not like that. I was one step away from coming out of jail and they come pick me up, like, we got some good news and bad news for you. And I’m like, let me hear the bad news first. They’re like, the bad news is, one of the friends who came here with you has to go to jail, and the good news is you have to go home still. And I’m like, I don’t care who’s gonna come back here, I ain’t waiting on nobody — I’m going home.
They came and picked me up from jail with a whole lot of drugs and the police searched the bus. It’s good that they did that because if they had waited until I got on the bus, I would’ve gone right back to jail. But they locked my friends up while they let me go. But yeah, I got home and watched YouTube and went straight to the studio, and recorded the “First Day Out” song.
It’s an interesting time that you were in jail for because so much changed as far as public perception of Chicago while you were gone. Right when you were going in was when Chicago had faces — young faces — in a way it hadn’t in the years before, and obviously now Chance has gone supernova and Vic Mensa is a major label signee and Keef is a cult hero. Did you expect that, back then, for you all to be where you are?
Z-Money: I always knew. I always knew that if I kept grinding I’d be something big but I never knew I’d be with 1017 and Alamo. I was always planning, Gucci was always my favorite rapper, but I never knew that it would be this. I knew I’d sign to a label, but I never knew it’d be Gucci. It’s my consistent work, I work so hard, I’m in the studio every night when I record.
When I started rapping, I’d be in the studio every night — I’m not the rapper to come in once a week. I start my day off and finish my day off in the studio, and that’s how every day goes. When I don’t hustle, I can’t pay for my studio and my videos, and I didn’t have anyone else to invest in my music. Everyone’s all talking but I really did it — I went and got it, and didn’t care about what anyone else thought about it. I knew what I wanted and I knew what I was doing was hard, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to keep on doing it.
And when I first got out, I put out two mixtapes on the same day, no promotion, no nothing: Heroin Musik and Rich B4 Rap. I did an interview with Andrew Barber, 2012, he threw me out there — he was like, you can do something with your music. And I was in my restaurant one day and Rolling Stone adds me on Twitter, and I made number nine on a list of top mixtapes with the first mixtape I dropped, really. Rich Homie Quan’s Still Goin In was number ten. I knew I had something good.
Have you gotten a chance to work with Gucci yet?
Z-Money: Fifteen songs, promise. Gucci and me, the chemistry is so crazy. How we work, you’d think we’ve known each other for so long, that we had this planned. I appreciate Gucci a lot, and how he’s working and moving, I look up to that, I like what he’s doing.
I think the comparisons make sense, and it’s super interesting because both of you instinctively understand that you don’t have to growl or have a deep voice or rap at a high volume to find menace, so I really like the idea of you making music together. I’d love to hear more about Chiraq Mogul and how it came together, too.
Z-Money: I recorded some in Chicago, some on the road in Miami, LA, but mostly in Chicago. I get a different vibe in Chicago, when you’re home, you know what I’m saying? Chiraq Mogul, I’ve had that planned, but I wanted to wait until it was the right time and it really felt like it now, I’m making the best music I’ve made. I locked in and it came out great. Each song, the whole tape can give you different moods, different feelings. I took my time on it.
To me, it’s definitely the most fleshed out thing I’ve heard from you. ZTM is amazing but it’s short and explosive and I also can’t imagine ZTM being much longer than it is — what, twenty minutes? ZTM also feels like a big turning point, where you really settle into the voice and flow you have now, so I just wanted to ask you how you think your music’s changed over the last year.
Z-Money: It’s confidence. I’m seeing a lot more confidence, and my music’s always going to stay updated. Now I’m going farther with it, opening up my skills.