Pete Tosiello‘s process is devil’s water with no nonsense.
Spoiler alert: Zilla Rocca is a future former rapper, in the same way that we’re all future former somethings. Future Former Rapper, his first full-length as a future former POW Recordings artist, ponders this resignation without being paralyzed by it. The cliche “go-for-broke” is applied almost exclusively to debuts — artists who, having sacrificed nothing, have nothing to lose. Future Former Rapper is the other kind of go-for-broke: the veteran who’s spent the better part of his adult life perfecting rhyme schemes, who plucks a few grays from his beard with the passing of each Philadelphia season, and who can’t help but leave it all on the field. Even when the nostalgia gets particularly thick, it’s delivered with a safe sense of remove, like old pals catching up before their trains depart.
Zilla occupies a very precise middle ground between reverent I-95 North boom bap and deep-left art rap. For the aspiring future former rappers reading at home, this is not fertile territory! People think revivalists are reductive, and people think weird stuff is weird. Zilla’s most formidable tool is his voice: both in the sounds-that-his-mouth-makes sense and the frame of reference his narratives embrace (inspired by ‘50s crime novelists that even I’ve never heard of). It’s hard not to imagine most of his verses being relayed across a desk in a shadowy private eye’s office with a frosted glass door. For some reason it’s always raining outside and everybody wears trenchcoats.
That Zilla’s syllables are meticulously plotted is nothing new, and on Future Former Rapper his stone-faced proclamations are accompanied by stone cold production. William J. Sullivan’s show-stopper on “Make the Sickness, Sell the Cure” will have some listeners considering upgrading their stereo equipment as Zilla and Curly Castro sound like Run the Jewels 2.0. The Armand Hammer collaboration “Favors Are Bad News” sports an absolute trunk rattler by Disco Vietnam, the rakish, enigmatic, up-and-coming rap producer who legacy media outlets will undoubtedly spend all of 2019 trying to unmask. Ray West turns in a minimalist gem on “Drunk History,” and “Three Romans” is the tribute to Roman Catholic alumni Marvin Harrison, Rasual Butler, and Eddie Griffin that rap needs.
Zilla’s managed to surround himself with an elite corps of hip hop’s avant garde, and on Future Former Rapper they’re deployed like battle-tested mercenaries. Still, the most fulfilling moments are those when Zilla looks back—and in a few instances, forward—at his own life. Even as one of our leading blue collar rap dads, rap is necessarily compartmentalized. Knowing Zilla’s stance on retirement proclamations, he won’t be calling himself a former rapper anytime soon, but when he does he’ll have a good reason.