Oakland hip-hop duo Zion I have been making music together for fifteen years. The duo has always been a balancing act: producer AmpLive balances hip-hop and electronic music with his beats, and rapper Zumbi balances conscious rap and party rap in his rhymes. Both men are new fathers who are struggling to reconcile their role as parents to their vocation as musicians and artists. The “ShadowBoxing” in the title refers to Tai Chi, which Zumbi has been using to center himself and help him put away the negative thoughts and practices that he doesn’t want to teach his child. While you might think this would lead them to an introspective record, the end product is actually closer to “The Takeover,” where they tried to mesh rap and dance music.
AmpLive has been working with electronic beats for a few years now, and on “ShadowBoxing” he dives in head-first. From the sound of things, he’s been hanging out at the same dance clubs as the Black Eyed Peas, and the results don’t always work. “Re-Load” has Zumbi rapping over a beat that sounds like euro-trance circa 1999. He drops lines like “In the center of the dance floor/Sink in the ocean/My brother got the dank dog/Purple emotion/And I’ma keep soaking/Deep in the mystery.” He recovers his footing on the bouncing “Human Being,” which features throbbing synths over a snapping beat, erupting into drum n bass on the chorus. “Trapped Out” has a solid beat with electronic flourishes, and Zumbi raps about his struggles to stay on the righteous path. The title track features a pop-locking electro beat with some of the album’s fiercest rhymes. “Whydaze” sounds like an indie pop song, with Zumbi singing his rhymes.
These highlights are dampered by several tracks that didn’t work for me. “Sex Wax” is a lukewarm dancehall track. “Anymore” is another attempt at a pop-oriented track that is hampered by a lame sung chorus of “I ain’t trippin’ anymore!” Even the Grouch and Eligh track “We Don’t” feels flat.
There are moments where the old Zion I magic is on full display. At his best, Zumbi perfectly tows the line between dashiki wearing conscious rapper and dayglo-shades sporting party rapper. You never feel like you are being lectured by him, but he’s also delivering lines that are deeper than your average rapper. AmpLive continues to push the boundaries of hip-hop by mixing dance music elements along with Bay Area slap beats.
The problem is that I wasn’t feeling the attempts at a more pop sound. I don’t like dance/pop music, so I’m not interested in hearing a rap act make dance/pop music. I avoided “The Takeover” for that reason. It’s not that I demand that Zion I stay confined to the backpack ghetto, but I wish they would experiment in music that I found less objectionable. If you thought the pop-oriented tracks on “The Takeover” were the perfect meshing of hip-hop and dance music, then you’ll love “ShadowBoxing.” If you are like me, you’ll want to cherry pick which songs you download from the album.