Zubz has one of the most impressive discographies in SA hip hop, or even Africa at large. The Last Letta takes his time when crafting his albums and this is evident in the multiple layers – thoroughly (sometimes overly) thought-out lyrics and concepts, well-selected fitting music and even the physical packaging of the CD – that (make up) the end product.
2009’s Cochlea – One Last Letta marked an end of a three-piece opus themed around ‘listening’ hence the names: Listener’s Digest, Headphone Music in a Parallel World and of course, Cochlea: One Last Letta.
So what was to follow next? We never heard much. In 2012, he teamed up with long time-friend and partner in rhyme, Tumi Molekane as TZ Deluxe to release the Where Were You? mixtape – rendering some rhymes over some classic old school kwaito beats. He also released a couple of singles on his soundcloud page.
In October 2013, he returned with Dragon Lion_Full Circle; yet another cumbersomely-titled album. Nothing new there. But what does it mean? A few days after the release of the album, he posted a video on Youtube explaining the title and why the album was going for free. “We recorded all the songs in 2012 – the Chinese year of the dragon, and coincidentally I was born in the year of the Dragon and I’m a Leo, hence ‘Dragon Lion’,” he explained. “When I started as a rap artist officially in 2003, I released a mixtape absolutely free which I gave away to my fans. So me doing this again means I have come full circle.”
So how’s the album? In a hip hop epoch where every rapper is hitching a ride on the incumbent band-wagon, where does The Last Letta stand musically?
Sonically, Zubz messes around with a plethora of sounds ranging from electro/pop (yikes!) to ‘African’ percussion, heard-everyday-on-the-radio synthesizers and 808s and all the way back to the warm organic ambient bass-lines he’s known for. The sonic juxtaposition created a tad of a discomfort to my cochlea (see what I did there?). Let me put it this way: switching genres four times within a space of four tracks is taking the term ‘versatility’ a bit too far. Or not?
Okay, calm down, Dragon Lion_Full Circle is not a bad album. At all actually. Lyrically, it’s still the Zubz we’ve grown to love, and even though I don’t think having electro/pop, reggae, jazz, and ‘new school’ hip hop in one album is the best idea, the quality of each and every song is a feat to marvel and can only be done this well by a few rappers on this side of the globe.
If you didn’t like “Part Time Lover – Full Time Freak” in his previous release, Cochela – One Last Letta, then you’ll be skipping a lot of songs on DLFC. Tracks like the TehnDiamond and Si-Anne-assisted “Getby” – a booty-hop electro/pop tune that wouldn’t feel out of place if played after a David Guetta tune in a hippy party in Newlands – will confuse a lot of ‘heads’. And so will the video single – the Si-Anne-featuring “Apart”. This song just belongs in Adele’s 21 album or rather a 5FM Sunday afternoon playlist [or not, Kwesta?]. Or isn’t it there already? I wouldn’t know. There was just too much singing for me on this one.
But from an artist who ‘traded in the rapper so I can be the artist’, this type of album doesn’t come as a surprise, right? At least the idea of it. Lyrically, Zubz stays insightful and sounds comfortable in his own skin. He expresses his opinions on several issues but still manages to remain as suave as he’s always been. He explores our internet-bound society on “Liberatum” alongside Ghanaian MC, M.anifest. The instrumentation on this song sounds so Kanye – the keys, the jumpy rhythm and claps. It’s one of my favourite jams on the album alongside the Chi-assisted “Vakadzi” (which, if my memory serves me well, my Zimbabwean ex-girlfriend said that means ‘women’) – where Zubz fights an old war that sadly still holds (and with the recent assimilation of twerking into mainstream pop [hip hop] culture I guess). He addresses the exploitative portrayal of (black) women’s bodies in the media. He does that over some Stimela-reminiscent organ squelches provided by Chi. Smooth!
Dragon Lion_Full Circle is a pan-optic documentation of life. Zubz broaches a wide range of topics encompassing, among others, love, relationships, self-introspection, and spirituality.
The last two joints – “Nomusa”, assisted by long time-collaborator, Khethi and “Time”- reminded me of Headphone Music in a Parallel World (which is, by the way, still on heavy rotation on this writer’s ipod).
Zubz stays lyrically potent even when the music manages to confuse a small mind like mine. This is one of those albums we describe as; for the lack of a better word – musical. Linguistically, he’s more acrobatic using more vernacular phrases than he ever has before (or did he ever?) and more so on the hooks.
Dragon Lion_Full Circle, though a far cry from the monolithic nature of his previous releases (Headphone Music in a Parallel World especially), is a safe body of work. Personally I couldn’t connect with it at first but, knowing what Zubz is capable of, I searched and found the gold in it, and now I’m addicted to more than half of it. Yes, I skip a few tracks (which is normal, I guess) but take it from me, once again Zubz didn’t disappoint. I’m not sure how it will go down with the real hip hop heads (you know, the insufferable ones) though. With plenty of potential radio singles to choose from, he stands a great chance of winning a legion of new (non-hip hop) fans…and losing some of his old.
It’s not Listener’s Digest, it’s not Headphone Music in a Parallel World and it’s definitely not Cochlea: One Last Letta, it’s Dragon Lion_Full Circle. It’s different. Like it or not, it’s up to you really.
The album is available for free here.
Written By: Sabelo Mkhabela (@sabzapassword)