By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Peace. And then blessings.
No matter how innocuous the message that needs to be relayed, that's how correspondence with Zin is typically bookended.
Sometimes the Houston rapper — among many other things — will ad-lib a bit when he sees you ("Peace, fam"), and occasionally his altruism will arbitrarily splash onto those around you as he skates away ("Blessings to you and your family"), but the core components are always the same.
Peace to begin a conversation. Blessings to end it.
A convertible Corvette rides down La Branch outside of Third Ward's Midtown Art Center. The driver is laying into his horn because, blasphemously, the car in front of him did not explode into motion the instant the light turned green. It's the only real noise on an otherwise peaceful street, which probably makes it feel more disconcerting than it actually is.
The horn is why Zin, the passenger in a blue Buick LeSabre missing a small portion of its molding, is able to sneak up. He's come to exactly where he said he'd be at exactly the time he said he'd arrive, carrying a plastic Whole Foods bag with some junk in it and a piece of rolling luggage that operates as his "portable studio." (It contains a computer and some recording equipment.)
Zin is wearing a baggy yellow T-shirt, long khaki shorts and some weathered Asics. His schedule has been busy before today, but it's about to get shit-crazy. He'll perform five shows in as many days, then fly to California to do some work out there. He looks tired already, but smiles as he begins to talk.
Zin is a rapper. He's also a producer, humanitarian, DJ, video director, poet and radio personality. His birth name has been lost in the hustle. Hardly anybody knows it; certainly nobody ever calls him by it. Ask him what it is, and he'll tell you — then ask you politely not to print it.
He moved to Houston from Colorado by way of California in 1991 to attend Prairie View, a move that greatly affected his career's trajectory.
"At PV we actually had a couple student protests around voting rights and voting registrations," he says. "That kind of sparked [a desire to participate in community activism]. I started reading about the history of the movement; started vibing it."
Before Zin became well-known in Houston's underground conscious-rap scene, back when he used to go by the stage name "Analytical," Zin was already entrenched in the local activist community. Influenced by his Zen Buddhism studies, he changed his name to "Zen" in 1996, then swapped out the "e" for an "i" shortly thereafter (a decision influenced by actual Zen Buddhists).
"A bunch of Zen cats started showing up to my shows," he says. "I was cool with that, but it kinda weirded me out."
He's since become a key member of Third Ward's neighborhood, spouting off names of outreach programs, building addresses and various longtime community members like a doctor recites bones of the body.
A hundred professional names Zin has associated with can be dropped — Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, X-Clan — and just as many stories can be told that illuminate how important Zin is to his community. For example, he's been mentoring a neighborhood kid by the name of Jack Swain since Swain was a third-grader, imparting tidbits about music production with each passing mark on each passing report card. Swain now attends Hampton University studying music engineering.
It all seems superfluous. One need look no further than Zin's latest LP, Mental Graffiti, to learn (nearly) everything significant about him. It's the most emphatic work of his career.
Inside Midtown's Drumusic Studios, "She's a Hustler" is pumping out of the studio speakers. It's the second track off Mental Graffiti — five years removed from previous effort Seeds of Survival — and the best song on the album, fun and immediately sparkly.
At its core, "Hustler" is that sing-songy electronic R&B/hip-hop that everybody made fun of Diddy for trying on Press Play's "Last Night" back in 2006, then subsequently fell in love with after the Internet's grasp on the music industry became undeniable.
Drake's "Best I Ever Had" is the most obvious example of the sound right now. It's fun, but the braggadocio undercuts the song's long-term appeal; there's a human element to Zin's croon that intensifies it.
Zin's vocals make his songs ("Hustler" in particular) catchy without placing style over substance. Mental Graffiti is like the opposite of an Asher Roth album.
Lyrically, "Balance" is Mental Graffiti's strongest track, and seems tailor-made to be played at the intermission of a spoken-word event; thematically, the Mos Def-like tweak of "Beautiful" shines. The title track begins like repurposed Lenny Kravitz electro-funk, but eventually rounds into a hearty trombone-guided soul spin guided by the stellar Andre Hayward.
Underground icon Bobbie Fine murders the heart-of-hip-hop track "If You Feel It," and long-term, "Baby" is the most likable song on the album because it feels so consequential. It's about a musician telling his significant other that he's leaving her, with the crux of the couple's problems spawning from his being on the road too much. Zin says it's only semiautobiographical.