Every single time I sit down with Z-Ro, something new gets uncovered.
Last year, it was an interview surrounding two things — his legacy as one of Houston's, if not all of rap’s, more misunderstood characters, and his new album Melting the Crown. The hourlong conversation truncated down to a lengthy article became one of the more engaging pieces about Z-Ro on the net. We discussed his career, his reaction to people's declaring his 2003 “Mo City Don” freestyle as the Texas National Anthem, his connection to DJ Screw and Mike Dean. We talked process, his hooks, his woes with labels and creative forces unwilling to see his vision and push him as someone wanting to be known and seen globally. Everyone got something out of it. Z-Ro, the comedian and proven regional rap star, was able to shed light on why some things fell apart.
A year later, we’re sitting down in Houston’s, an American restaurant that mixes swank charm and Lower Kirby mystique. We’re supposed to be discussing Drankin’ & Drivin’, his brand-new album, which is being distributed by Empire on Friday. The records there may not exactly be as rich and revved up as they were on Melting the Crown, but they’re still filled with Z-Ro’s penchant for melody and straight-forward discussions about life. The checklist you walk into every Z-Ro album with gets pocked off here. Drama with the mother of his children? “Baby Momma Blues." Using his haters as his primary motivators? “My Money." Intricate storytelling of the ups and downs? “Women Men." It’s Z-Ro in a comfortable position, positioned in the unfamiliar territory of a rap star with someone behind him willingly giving him a push in the right direction, with the things beyond his control.
What he can control is being in Houston’s — at his favorite table, where he and his manager, Heavy, are discussing little things since their trip back from New York. It’s also the same space he and former Warehouse Live production manager Morrow “L.A.” Potts ate salads every two weeks. Since Potts’s death in February, he can barely bring himself to even go to Warehouse.
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“Phone’s been ringing ever since we got back,” Heavy says with an exasperated look. “From 7:30 to 2 a.m…I had to get an office.” Z-Ro puts his fork down and begins clapping, loudly. Because he knows the work is being done. “Heavy got an office, y’all!”
The world surrounding Z-Ro is finally working with him. It took only 19 albums and 22 mixtapes for it to happen.
It hasn’t been the smoothest road to get here, even during the run for Drankin’ & Drivin’.
When he went to New York with Heavy last week, Z-Ro did the first actual press run of his near two-decade rap life. He spoke with Elliott Wilson and Brian “B.Dot” Miller’s wildly successful Rap Radar Podcast. He spent time on Sway In the Morning, had call-ins from Scarface and other Houston legends vetting him as one of the South’s greatest untapped reservoirs. It was a joyous moment for Ro, the victory lap after years of being seen as misunderstood, surly or even worse.
Then last Thursday night in Dallas happened. Ro bunkered up in Mike Dean’s home studio and watched the chaos unfold. Every bit of information about the shootings that came out, he began writing. Eventually, he was done writing and went to rapping. By the time Mike Dean’s crushing drums and piano met Z-Ro’s voice, “No Justice No Peace” had been completed. Once it was released over the weekend, the immediate response to it highlighted Ro’s anger and frustration with law enforcement. He seethed in melody, just as he had on “Crooked Officer” some years back. However, the final line of his second verse caught everyone off-guard: “Mr. Officer, Crooked Officer, they in Dallas tryna blow the badges off of ya.”
The backlash came swift. Ro reiterated in his interview on the Rap Radar Podcast that he wasn’t advocating for police to be killed but that he understood how people get pushed to think that way, that those individuals wouldn't offer peace. “I said ‘crooked officer,'” he tells me back inside of Houston’s. “I didn’t say ‘upstanding policeman.’ They think I’m saying something like I’m glad it happened or I’m telling people to bear arms. I’m talking to the police. We’ve been talking about this since we’ve been getting sprayed by water hoses.”
He listed notable officers and constables who are good cops but whose names sadly are getting sullied by those who have committed acts of violence against nonviolent suspects — the blue code of silence, as it's referred to. Discussing this, dialogue between both parties, seems like it would amount to nothing in Ro’s eyes. Protesting, marching, it’s been occurring for decades. What Ro feels may be best is sitting down with city officials and other major members of the community to discuss solutions that way.
Beyond black frames, a black T-shirt and his phone by his side, Ro’s confidence seems sky-high. “I’ve worked for this,” he smiles while shuffling a few nacho chips into guacamole. “If you put in the work late at night like Jordan, shooting late night in the gym, doing the up/downs, wouldn’t you be happy about the results?”
He continues eating, ruffling off a few anecdotes about being a basketball player and listing off his two positions of choice: small forward or shooting guard. “I’d dunk on you, though,” he affirms. It fits his temperament in the world of crafting music. His main move of choice was a quick first step and then getting to the hole, all with the purpose of embarrassing you. Then his game stretched outward, practicing jumpers, free throws, three pointers in the park. Getting shot in his teens ended any chance of his playing ball at Willowridge, and bouts with homelessness eventually pushed him to the streets, rapping with Street Military and then DJ Screw. He’s been a virtual one-man army of rage boiled over into succinct, expressive raps ever since.
On “My Money,” the second song from Drankin’ & Drivin’, Z-Ro hops up out of bed and immediately goes to work in the booth. The microphone hangs mere inches away from the bed, meaning soon as Ro gets up, he’s at his job, working. “Hate fuels America,” he says with a stoic demeanor. “It doesn’t take a genius to take height and make it weight. I don’t mean ‘w-a-i-t,' I mean ‘w-e-i-g-h-t’. Make it heavy. I’m talking about a paycheck. And guess what? I’ve been singing about haters for 19 albums and 22 mixtapes. And it’s gonna be for another 19 albums and another 22 mixtapes. Ain’t no reason to change at all.”
The realization of Z-Ro, Actual Rap Star, isn’t lost on him. He’s wanted it for decades but the main fight, according to him, has been with everyone else. Rap-A-Lot, the situation with Sony Red last year with Melting the Crown, all the forces and trust he thought he found in people that would work with him to achieve this. Even Heavy, his manager, has been on the outside of it. “I’ve been fired three times!” Heavy jokes. Z-Ro quickly counters, “Nah, man, it was twice. You adding an extra time and shit.”
They both laugh.
Miller has been a vocal supporter of Z-Ro, as have many journalists attached to prominent rap mags. Z-Ro, however, couldn’t see it. The trip last week was his second ever visit to New York City. The first occurred last year as he met with Sony Red about Melting the Crown and flew right back to Houston. Flying isn’t a concern for him. Being around people who’d rather play Xbox in Houston as opposed to playing Xbox in Atlanta after all the work is done in Atlanta is.
“New York had my music; Cleveland, they had it,” he says. “Africa, they had it! But they getting burns, only way they were gonna get it. Lot of these people down here when they do music is recouping. Recouping, get 10 - 15 percent, never repressing, never reupping on the CDs, never going digital. So what can I do at the with no capital? If people selling my shit from here to Lake Charles and it’s stopping, who fault is it? If I’m only going as far as my two legs and $1,000 would take me back then? You’re not going very far. Then the money run out.”
He continues, “Imagine going somewhere not knowing anybody soon as you get off the plane. And not knowing who’s fucking with you. Get off the plane and do what? Just walk? Hope I run into Kay Slay? Clue? Not knowing if these people even know who I am, or that I actually exist and breathe air. Shit, I might be walking into an ass whupping. ‘Shit, I’m in Harlem. What the fuck you doing in Harlem? Run your jewelry, son!’ You don’t know what it’s gonna be like.”
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The ball was dropped with Melting the Crown, in Ro’s eyes. Excellent songs with Rick Ross and Kirko Bangz ultimately got no videos. There was no actual press, outside of an interview last February with XXL. “It’s kind of like, what do you do when you’re working with a machine that’s broken down,” he says. “Not saying their machine is broken down, but still. I did a couple of interviews and that was it. Took a video I had already shot, was old by this point but at the end of the day, they were a distributor, not a label. Which makes me laugh because [Empire] is a distributor and they’re doing all of this shit.”
He recalls his initial meeting with Empire as something that finally allowed him to be him, the kind of control he’d been wishing for for years, with a partner willing to work with his vision at every step of the way. People are getting Z-Ro’s comedy, his constantly fluttering wordplay that makes him seem more Oakland-based pimp than Ridgemont OG. “I wasn’t afforded this from album No. 1 to album number 18," he says. "I was almost afforded this by Rap-A-Lot, but due to people on the outside trying to get inside with hatin' and shit, that shit got blocked. I’ve never been...you know, letting people know the album is coming. Doing all the shit I’ve wanted to do. Going to XXL, not a phoner. Going to VIBE, walking through Harlem, not a phoner. Actually going there. The shit I’ve told every piece of management, A&R I’ve ever had — let’s get the fuck out of Houston. I’ve got a worldwide sound.”
“I don’t want to be like God,” Ro says with a firmness to his voice. “You know like he’s there but you don’t see him? No, I want to be tangible to the people. Get out and touch people like you being right here. And a lot of people look at me and think it’s me! ‘He don’t want to leave Texas.' No, I want to get out of here and work. This is home; there is no more ground to cover here. We been here all our lives, growing gray hairs and shit. Let’s go.”