ALBUM: Ghostride #55
Z is Sensei.
Now, more than ever, it’s clear what role the Minneapolis native wants to play in the grand scheme of things - the grandmaster, the monk, the sensei. Enlightened and knowledgable, a “been there, learned from that,” sort of vibe. But to pull this off, he’s going to need an arsenal more stocked than Bruce Wayne’s. It’s a good thing Z is also a chameleon.
Whether it’s penning dense autobiographical epitaphs for his past, like on 2012’s Waiting for Pubic Transit, or taking on the “trap gods” in last year’s, last minute, EP, Placebo X, Z has intelligently laid the blueprints for finally creating, and claiming, a soundscape all for himself. While every time he raps, there will undoubtedly be a person wondering “what that soundin’ like” (“What That Soundin’ Like”), lost in his skillful synthesis of a slew of influences, rap is so far removed from it’s origins now that it’s time for the template to shift once again. For territorial influences to become obsolete, and making pinning down an artist to his clear-cut influences a lost cause.
On Ghostride #55, Z, and producer BLakeSmiTh, create an intentionally futuristic exploration of a variety of sounds. Aesthetically, the atmosphere is engulfed by electronic and glitching notes pierced by the odd soul sample (“Live From The Six-Hundred & Twelve”) and Atmosphere soundbite (“I Am Sensei”). It’s hollow in the brief lulls, as Z explores his confidence and adamant drive to prove his worth, and contrastingly cluttered and claustrophobic when Z has a breakthrough. The album serves a reflection on what it takes to gather self-assurance and move forward, and the fantastic production has one foot planted firmly in the future to help the process.
The past plights are left obscure (another topic for another tape: Free Morgan Freeman), and the future is still unsure, but Z stitches together fragments of the former pill-popping, court-ordered, slave to circumstance, all while making sure to remind you that “that gavel don’t know,” that he “played that crutch” (“Live From the Six-Hundered & Twelve”). There’s a sense of anxiety in the reflections, but it’s a purposeful claustrophobia to highlight that now, finally, he’s at the other end of the tunnel - not stumbling blindly, lost in the insecurities.
On “I Am Sensei,” Z repeatedly claims that "I'm the man," only to have it finally be contrasted by a sample of Atmosphere and Slug's existential musings. To the question, "what could you say as the earth gets further and further away, planets as small as balls of clay," Z has no reply yet. Nothing works, he realizes, except making everything even more personal. For Z, as the "world gets further and further away," it's important to remind yourself that you're "the man,” because, as the world drifts out of focus, so does everything else - if there’s nothing to help keep you grounded. This requires facing everything with a zeal and bravado that Z's clearly, finally, finding his way around. He went from "avant-garde" to "lost and found," ("What That Soundin' Like?") and has been trying to establish himself again ever since - for all the eyes on him, and, more importantly, for himself.
Z realizes "who you are in the flesh deflects off of the best offer I got” (“Life From the Six- Hundred & Twelve”), so he pieces together nuanced sagas in fifteen minutes, hoping you listen, but is more worried about how it shapes him as a man. If it'll continue to help him prove his worth, or keep digging the hole that's already looking pretty deep. It's the same crushing insecurity that keeps Jay Electronica at bay, but it's the same train of thought that allows both these artists to insert so much nuance and subtlety into the most compact releases.
Beyond these hints of personal anecdotes and layered storytelling, is, low-key, the actual reason for this EP’s existence - the reason why Z is Sensei, and why the structure and execution of this project are also as important as the content. With rap morphing at an almost exponential rate, “what that soundin’ like” will soon be a moot assertion, and Z is here to head that charge. So he warbles his notes and stretches the limits of his key, singing and whispering briefly between bars, biting and flipping famous lines and melodies, while holding his cards close, only to give you the appropriate glimpses. Enough to let you he's still got his head on straight for the most part.
It’s a dynamic, but entirely comfortable, collision of past and present styles, juxtaposed by the enigmatic allure of Z’s writing. The tape, thematically, is a proud declaration of no longer boxing “shadows at home,” (“What That Soundin’ Like?”) but taking on "Apollo” (“2011”). You think you know Z, and “you might’ve met him prior to” 2011, but “try again.”
“What that soundin’ like?”