Still alive? Well no shit Z-Ro, one would certainly hope so. We ain’t heard shit about you getting shot, going to the hospital, and winding up in the morgue. Maybe there are some enemies in your past who might like to see that fate befall you, but Southern hip-hop heads who know you from albums like “The Life of Joseph W. McVey” and”Let the Truth Be Told” aren’t in any hurry to lay flowers on your coffin. The title “I’m Still Livin” does reflect one thing other than the fact he has a pulse though – the fact he’s still so unknown outside the Third Coast that most folks wouldn’t know whether he really is alive or dead.

“My hand grab the wheel and foot mashes the pedal
Block to block, corner to corner lookin at the devil
Makin my brothers think they got nine lives
They was so gangsta, ’til Lucifer got ’em caught up in a driveby
Little kids witness uncles and fathers pass on
Then they grow up to get they blast on
Everybody sayin that the black community is out of control
Even in the suburbs, brains get blown
They blame rap for the murder rate
But people go to the movies they see murder for $7 then they imitate
what they done seen on Terminator 1, 2, 3
Schwarzenegger’s the Governor, we get L-I-F-E
Innocent victims get a free ride to the grave
People that work hard get robbed for every penny they saved
It’s like it ain’t gon’ never change, this world we live in is cold
Hit my Hpnotiq and then I continue to roll”

Songs like “Continue 2 Roll” have a universal appeal far beyond his Southside Houston origins. It may on the surface appear cheap for producer Mike Dean to sample Spandau Ballet’s given he’s not the first to loop it, but the reality of Z-Ro’s rap hits home hard when the back of your mind echoes with the original refrain emphasize that that we “know this much is true.” Tanya Herron sings some smoth vocals in that open space between his verses and adds a beauty that helps emphasize Z-Ro’s harsh ghetto truths, which are themselves beautifully constructed and articulated. Z-Ro has an uncanny combination of baritone voice and immaculate breath control, the latter of which is often emphasized when he goes on a speed rip that would leave Twista amazed. While “Continue 2 Roll” is a lot slower and more radio oriented, that doesn’t mean Z-Ro has abandoned being a “T.H.U.G. (True Hero Under God)”:

“Twenty-fo’ seven I’m in trouble for nothin
To the laws I’m the topic of their daily discussion
Blood pumpin and rushin I gotta struggle to survive
I be rappin but I can deal with a 9 to 5
Long as it be legal I’ll be willin to try
All I need is a pair of wings, I’ll be willin to fly
Tryin to get a piece of the pie and I ain’t takin I work for it
I be doin right but I’m bein punished on Earth for it
What else can I do, to make an honest livin
Seem like whatever I do, will get me up in prison
Never see me on the corner, never caught me with crack
Got a dream of leavin the ghetto but ain’t comin back”

Joseph McVey’s big dreams are what keeps his head above water, even when a continuing mountain of legal problems threaten to pull him under. The whole thing is really twisted when one considers that his situation has inspired Z-Ro to artistic and creative heights – on “I’m Still Livin” he comes remarkably close to perfecting his craft and those who can keep up with his fast pace will be duly impressed at the level of attention he pays to detail in rhyme scheme as well as with painting lyrical pictures that ARE as vivid as the seven dollar films he finds more to blame for urban violence than rap. In the end though his point is that neither are really to blame – lack of opportunity and disenfranchisement lead to street violence and criminal behavior. He tries to rise above it throughout the album though on track after track of Mike Dean dopeness, such as their mutual tribute to fellow Houstonian legend Scarface on “Man Cry”:

“(What’s happenin now)
In the year two thousand (six) ain’t nothin changed for Ro
12 albums strong, lookin for dough and yet I’m still po’
Now I done had and I done lost and I done had again
On the verge of suicide, I deeply wish I had a friend
But even still a good samaritan is Z-Ro’s way
And with that Christian attitude I caught a homeboy case
I done took too many blows, a punchin bag is how I feel
The deep depression starts to set, sanity’s outta here
I start my mission tryin to find my fate
CDC #4 in name I’m feelin oh-so-helpless in this place
I want revenge it’s heavy on my mind but ain’t central
Say don’t fight evil with evil, try to relax and do yo’ time
I heard a voice say there wasn’t no need in actin up
Realized I wasn’t at peace with God and had to patch it up
Hopin that blessings fall out of the sky
Z-Ro ain’t never seen a man cry until it was his own eye”

Other sterling examples of the Dean to Ro connection include the smoothed out “Homie, Lover, Friend,” the choral crunk of his solo mission “One Deep,” and the old school menacing Geto Boys feel of “Keep On.” That’s not to say other people don’t have an able hand in making this album hot. McVey produces a few tracks himself such as “Remember Me” with Bun B and “Still Livin'” featuring H.A.W.K. and Trae, while Enigma gets down on hardcore songs like “M16” and “What’s Going On?” Actually that’s a damn good question especially when you evaluate Z-Ro’s words on the cut: “Everyday of my life has been a struggle and pain/so I perform with no emotion or further need to explain/If you love me in your life, then leave me alone/Fuck rap, I live the life I sing about in my songs.” This writer hopes that’s not literal truth, because Z-Ro’s just gangster enough in his rap to be buried for life if true – buried behind prison walls. That would be a damn shame because Z-Ro is a thinking man’s gangster of hip-hop, hard enough for the hood but too damn smart not to warn you about the dangers of the criminal lifestyle. The fact that he desires to pay tribute to Scarface on “I’m Still Livin” is no coincidence – he is the modern day continuation of Mr. Brad’s legacy. Let’s hope he keeps on “livin” for a long time.

Z-Ro :: I'm Still Livin
9Overall Score