New Houston Rap

Z-Ro Is Done With Rap; We're Not Better Off For It

Z-Ro is officially fed up. Rightfully positioned as a legend, Joseph Wayne McVey has transitioned into other avenues of life.
He hosts a radio show that discusses a wide number of topics where he can flex his stance as a polymath. He can uncork a bottle of wine at his favorite restaurant and look more relaxed and at ease than the numerous businessmen who parade through hiding one of many sins. It makes all the more sense given that as he firmly situates himself as a 40-year-old that he isn’t putting a cap on his career because of age. Rather, Z-Ro is tired of you not appreciating what he has done better than nearly anyone in Houston (or rap, period) for the better part of two decades.

When we last approached Z-Ro’s No Love Boulevard about a month or so ago, it came right around the same time that Mike Dean, his production compatriot from his Rap-A-Lot days, was moving into a position as a label head. But that’s been Z-Ro’s mode of operation forever: a pessimist who will brush you off before inviting you inward. Bad contracts and shady individuals on both sides of the gender spectrum have soured him completely. The only pure things that he’s ever created that weren’t music are his kids. Remember, radio got their initial glimpse of Z-Ro not off a Street Military track or even a Screwed Up Click record. Instead, his breakthrough single was called “I Hate You,” a melodic, blues guitar wreck of a song where Z-Ro’s singing voice became not only imitable, it became the immediate replacement for his usual step-ahead flow.

It’s fair that we look at Z-Ro through every prism of his career. As a hard head with the Screwed Up Click and Guerilla Maab, he was the tongue-twisting speedster. It was not a reliance on a gimmick, he naturally would move in warp-speed discussing surliness, his standoffish demeanor towards people and general airs about life. On “Southside Groovin,’” a Screw institution, he’s the only one with a controlled urgency and maturation. Screw's chops barely could catch up with him. As a member of Assholes By Nature with cousin turned cold-war participant Trae Tha Truth, they worked in guitar-ready tough talk while embracing their stances as people who could barely trust anyone.

Ro’s singing voice has bent numerous records in a play on what was a Screwed Up Click mandate: take an established record like Zapp’s “Doo Waa Ditty” and make a Houston-based flex of it. There’s the declaration of “W-W-W-dot-fuck-all-y’all-dot-com” on Let The Truth Be Told’s “Respect My Mind,” grinding a sample of Sade's “Cherish the Day” into dust. All Ro needed was beats to marry his pristine, absolutely rich singing voice to. He’s Al Green of the streets in that way, a non-traditional singer able to convey pain, excitement, bullshit and more into one fluttery, wisdom soaked murmur. For 20-plus years, Z-Ro has written the blueprint on the kind of depression masked as arrogant bravado that runs pop music today. You just didn’t give his career the flowers they deserved when he was interested.

Let The Truth Be Told will be hailed as the best, most prolific Ro album mainly because of “Mo City Don,” the anthemic, world-shifting freestyle. No Love Boulevard follows easily the most consistent string of Ro releases since those early Rap-A-Lot days, as the “Z-Ro On Drugs” saga yielded one amazing tape in Crack with a group of solid follow-ups, namely Heroin. On “Lost My Mind,” Ro sings the blues like a Mr. Rogers who wants to allow you into his neighborhood from a distance. His all-black shades firmly on his face, he declares he’s not a “model faced nigga,” an admirable bit of humor. But guess what? It’s still “fuck all y’all” because he does not “trust all y’all.” At all. He talks to himself sometimes and takes doctor-prescribed antidepressants. He wants his money passed down onto his kids in a way of building generational wealth. However, No Love Boulevard doesn’t traffic in areas of regrets like the other big-name rap record of June 30 did. Ro keeps it rather simple: Either he’s going to shake your hand or he’s going to shoot you in the face.

The world is going to miss Z-Ro, though trying to get him to change his mind is going to be harder than him going back to Rap-A-Lot. On “Solid,” his flip of Ashford and Simpson’s “Solid,” he declares that he’s not a hoe nor does he care about what people think about him. No Love Boulevard is an album of “you’ve got Z-Ro fucked up” tunes, which is the best assortment of Z-Ro tunes. “They Don’t Understand” has him contemplating reconciling with Trae but realizing he doesn’t even know how that’ll work; “Brang a Stacc” has him calling himself the father of all these singing rappers. In other words, Ro knows full and well where he stands in rap. He’s rather content with giving the game back and letting the world figure out how to exist without him. Signing a contract that would have locked him for eternity despite being rich? Wouldn’t have helped him. Ro likes his independence, right down to tweaking Krayzie Bone’s final verse from “Dayz of Our Livez” for “Devil In Me.”

No Love Boulevard is supposed to be a “retirement” album from Ro, but retirements in rap last only for so long. Jay Z gave it three years before he returned with Kingdom Come. Too $hort was supposed to be done, yet he’s entering a fourth decade of recording. Unlike those two, Ro isn’t attempting to prove something. All the proving took place over albums that put him from a Mo City Legend to a regional behemoth that just now, on his last three albums, is getting treated like a national star. Age or not, No Love Boulevard ends with Ro offering more threats than wanting to go on a victory lap. “He’s Not Done” is akin to your father telling you, “Don’t make me come back” after delivering a thunderous whupping to you. “I am Michael Jordan/ I retire, come back and retire again for the fuck of it.”

We want him to.

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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell