Atomic Clock, the latest offering from veteran Oakland Hip Hop duo Zion I aspires for great depth. With high BPMs, producer AmpLive and emcee Zumbi want you to be moved not just by the music, but also by the message. Zumbi’s occasionally preachy lyrics bear this out but luckily, AmpLive remembered that people are far likelier to listen to hear (and remember) what you say if the music behind it is engaging enough to warrant repeat plays.
Album opener “Always” boasts a propulsive beat powered by little more than crisp drum hits but that pleasing minimalism is tarnished as the song frequently morphs into histrionic keyboard/horn/guitar murk. The chorus to “Always,” “Love conquers always, gotta keep your head up,” sets the standard for most of the album. In an attempt to keep his lyrics positive and uplifting Zumbi falls back on clichés, using old tropes that offer little in the way of guidance.
“4U” features AmpLive’s best production work on Atomic Clock. The dirty groove of the verses explodes into a bright, soaring chorus which melds horns, backing singers, and guitar crunch. Zumbi again returns to less than enlightening lyrics which portend to significance but fail to deliver upon close inspection: “Gotta be free, I let the enemy toil / Talkin’ bout the medicine for melancholy / Anybody, need a respite / Leave it all behind, never need to stress shit.” Zumbi’s lissome flow makes those bland lyrics enjoyable to ingest, at least. Zumbi does manage some impressive lyrical moments on the album. Most notable of these is “The Sun Came Out.” Zumbi leaps out of the gate: “Yeah, it’s like we just don’t care / Palms on the ground / Pop right there / People gathered round the spot right here / A tear drop, multiple shots, a nightmare / Soon to be leavin’ / Mama be greivin’ / It’s hard stayin’ even in gun buck season / What’s the reason we circle round / And pray for the body laid on the ground / We all strangers, the night surrounds / And the angels arrive once the trumpets sound / Crown the glory, behold the Lordy / When you make it up top / Hold a place there for me.” The energy and passion in Zumbi’s delievery is equal to the detail and poetic touches in this verse. The emcee is clearly full of talent and it’s disappointing that flashes of brilliance like “The Sun Came Out” are less than abundant on the duo's seventh full-length.
By far, the star of Atomic Clock is AmpLive. The producer jumps from style to style so adroitly on the record that despite the dearth of anything particularly innovative the listening experience is never dull. “Signs of Light” is a rollicking rock steady cut highlighted by pounding drums and smears of organ fuzz. “North Star” is one of the records more understated cuts, AmpLive still maintains his trademark rhythmic complexity, but here that complexity is achieved with a deft, relatively gentle touch and augmented with appropriately distorted electronics. “Infatuation” has a lurching beat and Baltic touches in the form of a strings, brass, and chanting backing vocals. Zumbi does a great job of riding the pleasingly awkward beat.
Unfortunately there are a few cuts where even the production offers little to recommend. “Polarity’s” production is so muddled it just ends up as grating noise and the lyrics once again attack a “big idea,” this time the differences between all the worlds people, with lyrics not worthy of the topic: “Much success I pray your life possess [sic], Many are afraid to face life’s true test / Spirit over flesh, all that make and manifest / Government oppress the best and brightest.” The harmless “Girlz” suffers from a weak chorus and production details, like exotic instrumentation, that are done far better on almost every other track. And “Many Styles” is by-the-numbers Dancehall track which feel like it’s here to fill some sort of quota for Zion I.
Atomic Clock is not nearly as serious as it would have liked to have been. It offers little insight into the state of the world today and even less solid advice on how to navigate the problems you must confront on a daily basis simply to live in that world. But what it does offer is an emcee that while often mired in platitudes, also possesses a nimble, forceful delivery. And it especially offers the work of a producer at the very top of his game, a beat-smith whose knowledge of various genres of music means his songs display a mastery of sonic texture and rhythm.