Zero Star

Forever's Never Really That Long

(Weightless; 2006)

By Chet Betz | 17 November 2006

Ohio capitol Columbus is a bit of a disconnected town. There’s a skyline, though not quite of the stature one would expect of the city’s population. In fact, Columbus sprawls itself out over the heart of the state, scarlet-oozing Ohio State University and a couple handfuls of skyscrapers at the metropolis core while many shopping centers and well-moneyed neighborhoods fill out past the wide outer belt. I was born into what had to be the poorest family in rich Dublin, left town for the country, many years later moved back to Columbus and the North Side’s unnoticed slums, then came to reside in the idyll of Grandview, home to OSU commuters and a bevy of redundant coffee shops. Downtown’s just across the way, and the drive’s always a weird revelation, moving from my tranquil avenue through the wealthiest of the wealthy stratus before tumbling suddenly out onto High Street, where fine dining and art galleries play a totally awkward game of patty cake with run-down tenements and crack dives.

In Zero Star, Columbus-based Weightless Records has a new artist persona that might be labeled as a cross-section of his local peers and, by a different extension, his city. His smooth thickness and fits of introspection (i.e. “Afterthoughts” and “Stress 101”) remind of Illogic, the town’s premier lyricist. And they both have some nice dreads. His pronounced cadences, sense of humor, scene acknowledgment, and photo junket scowl echo Blueprint, the emcee most often associated with Columbus, while his mellifluous timbre and ease of demeanor soothe like Dove Ink’s Davu, without sounding as, well, as happy as Davu tends to sound. And he’s got some of Jakki’s dark swagger, just not nearly as offensive. Unusual breath placement and staggered, mashed bars seem mostly his own style, but Zero Star represents Columbus in more ways than one.

To put the simplest statement first, it’s right there in the songs, especially on “Help is on the Way,” where Zero begins by shouting out the East Side, North Side, and South Side, then pausing before finishing with “even the Hilltop… West Side, baby.” Native listeners are already chuckling because we knew that’d be last. The song in its entirety is perhaps the most adept and incisive sketch of Columbus that any of its ambitious rappers have yet delivered, so it’s appropriate that the beat’s by Blueprint, not only the city’s hip-hop figurehead but also its top dog producer since Rjd2 left to join El-P’s NYC fold (and later to produce about twenty too many new Aceyalone joints). Print paces his warm drums between a resonating chord and variegates the piano chops; Zero paints streets of equal parts boredom, desperation, and post-collegiate entrapment: “Bleed till you see clear / Look, you can see fear / If we here, we here / No seeds in the trees, yeah / You see there, be fair / Fuck what you need there / I’ll be clear / We wear Nikes and Chucks here.” In the second verse Zero shifts more into the first person to levelly detail the city’s most popular coping mechanism: getting trashed. He makes it and all the casual sex attached seem perfectly amicable, but there’s a barb in the closing lines that subtly raises the right question marks.

Zero’s commentary might seem lofty except that he himself embodies the traits he’s critiquing. After all, he’s one of the ones drinking the days away. At his release party performance, glass of liquor by his feet, Zero called himself “schizophrenic,” and that’s fitting for an orator to a city that shows the same symptoms, that’s somehow centered on a cluster of not quite contradictions. In his words there’s a short fuse but a long line of reason, a hard-boiled thinker and a conscientious once-dealer. Print takes vaporous shimmers, a diced piano sample, horn blurts, and cracking drums to “Train of Thought,” the music tense beneath Zero’s runs through his consciousness: the imagery seemingly incapable of escaping violence, the delivery heavy with guilt, and the hook a nervous bark, “Who the fuck is at my door? / If it’s you, you better duck when I shoot.”

The third Zero and Blueprint collaboration to cornerstone the record is the gorgeous soul looping of “People,” a potent closer that examines the hustler rap monopoly on heads’ respect. He uses a ghetto jeremiad, his own qualified cred play (“Listen, I used to sell drugs for a living / but I ain’t never shot nobody”), and a Pitchfork diss that’s more broadly functional as a diss of the over-glorification of coke rap by the critical community. Zero’s faceted personality and background means he’s as even-handed as he is topical, and that former quality serves him very well here, where he doesn’t decry the Clipse so much as question the narrow mentality of hip-hop’s supporting establishments, who seem unwilling to view rap on the social spectrum it can and should traverse: “Because they slangin’, and they movin’, and they bangin’, and they shootin’ / Then their shit’s for the streets / But we ain’t slangin’, we ain’t movin’, we ain’t bangin’, we ain’t shootin’ / Then this shit’s for the geeks? / I guess….”

Some of Print’s other beats here feel like remixes of past work, like the way “Stress 101” speeds up the same famous sample at the foundation for the original version of Illogic’s “1000 Whispers” or the similarity in construction between “Catch Up” and Greenhouse Effect’s “Square One.” Fortunately, DJ Przm’s rougher, more Detroit take on the Weightless sound burbles up on “Concrete” and spaces out on “The Lounge.” Nearly as big of a spotlight arrival as Zero Star, though, is the album’s announcement of Ree-Dic as Bustown’s next great producer. On the introductory “Hello” Ree-Dic helps Zero come tearing out of the gates with a minute-long merry-go-round banger, synth bass poling up and down as trills and chimes ride neatly on the bump; the music plays no small part in letting Zero obscure the track’s blunted rhymes for the sake of his final punchline: “Right now I eat a bullet and just swallow it fine, yep / Cause now I got you hypnotized, I ain’t even rhymed yet.” For the weary struggle of “Never Enough,” Ree-Dic arranges horns and vibes into jazzy hook backing and a plaintive cycle on the verses that distends before it restarts. And on “Afterthoughts” Ree-Dic plays the golden age game of moving drums in and out of a beautiful six-second loop. I don’t know if a deep appreciation of Zero Star requires experience with the Columbus aura that effervesces off his rapping, but if so, the largely indifferent population outside of Ohio should at least be able to enjoy these winsome, well-crafted, gloaming beats.

There are some of the missteps to be expected of a full-length debut (Zero self-released the Problem Child EP last year), such as lax sequencing and a spoken word outro by Brian Michael Murphy that, while impassioned and intelligent, feels too direct and didactic a chaser for the more balanced album that precedes it. Over half the tracks clock in at less than three minutes, which is a positive in that very little here overstays its welcome and the album dynamic is made fluid, allowing Forever’s Never Really That Long to come off nicely loose and unassuming, not to mention ephemeral in a way that fits its title. The trade-off is fewer tracks that feel like full-fledged songs as opposed to the cool cipher that is a “Concrete” or a “PTI.” But the listener might be ready to accept that shifty quality when the album’s a reflection of its creator, and the creator’s such a clear and present reflection of his conflicted circumstances—plus a living document of a city that will probably never manage to untwist its identity.