The story of Zion I's dogged rise to minor cult stardom lacks the larger-than-life arc of say, Jay-Z's Marcy-to-Madison hip-hop Horatio Alger legend, or Nas' dramatic, never-ending cycle of rising and falling. By the art form's 30-inch-rim-sized standards, the duo's history is positively modest: Adventurous, inventive producer Amp Live hooks up with Bay Area schoolteacher MC Zion. They play the kind of volcanic live shows that transform atheists into missionaries. Their well-received debut, Mind Over Matter, fuses hip-hop and drum-and-bass to sometimes-exhilarating effect. Madlib remixes Zion I's single "Critical" into a magnificent miniature suite. The fellas put out an even better second album and win even more fans. And now, they're releasing their relaxed, assured, consistent third album, True & Livin'.
Here, Amp Live has traded in Mind Over Matter's frenetic drum-and-bass for old-school upright bass and a host of other deftly employed live instruments (trumpet, violin, keyboards, sitar) crucial to the album's relaxed, wide-open grooves. Lyrically, Zion remains obsessed with the evolution, past, and future of hip-hop, especially on "Bird's Eye View," a quietly reverent secular hymn to the genre, in the vein of Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R." and The Roots' "Act Too (Love Of My Life.)" He spreads his infectious idealism to the rest of the world with "Soo Tall," a track whose exuberant violin, Afrocentric lyrics, swinging vibe, and bittersweet optimism make it sound like the ideal soundtrack to a hoedown at a Black Pride rally.
Zion's wordplay can feel remedial, and his songs about relationships beg for the fast-forward button, but there's no doubting his passion or sincerity, and he's aided lyrically by remarkable guest turns from Del, Gift Of Gab, Aesop Rock, and Talib Kweli. Kweli appears on the standout "Temperature," where he simultaneously gains geek cred and loses street cred by rapping about the protagonist of Constantine. Aesop Rock contributes a morbidly funny verse to the song "Poems 4 Post Modern Decay," which, if it were a person, would live in Greenwich Village, smoke clove cigarettes, and attend open-mic nights.
"We claim 2Pac as a source of pride," Zion raps on "The Bay," where the understated bravado of his old-school delivery matches the jazzy, unhurried shuffle of Eugene Warren III's upright bass. Thanks to three straight winners in a row, the Bay can now claim Zion I as a source of pride as well.