Z-Ro is not a people person. Though his rhymes are replete with gunplay and tough talk, the underlying message of Houston’s reigning underground king is one of distrust. To hear Ro tell it, every friend is disloyal, every woman a gold digging groupie and the only proper response is reclusion. Call it emo-rap or call it a therapy session. When he raps suicide, he’s not talking about car doors.

So it’s disconcerting that Crack, roughly his tenth proper album (depending on how you’re counting certain side projects and undergrounds), opens with a blissful, almost childlike melody. Ro playfully outlines his concept – his music is a drug (this is a factual statement, not a metaphor, as any Ro junkie can verify) and he’s set to deliver 14 new songs to overdose on. The first of which, believe it or not, is a full-fledged ballad. If “Baby Girl” is to be believed the once hardened Z-Ro has finally found love. “No longer do I have to search / she’s a dime but she’s down to earth / it’s understood to me she gotta be my baby girl” You’d almost mistake it for sarcasm, if he didn’t seem so damn earnest.

Fortunately (for the listener, not so much for Z-Ro – keep your head up, buddy) this is a curveball, a brief moment of misplaced happiness. Almost immediately after declaring his undying loyalty to this nameless lady friend he’s back on the loner tip, finding solstice only in dead presidents. He intimates: “My grandmother told me the pillow don’t love you back / but God never took one of my ribs and made me a woman, I’ma concentrate on my stacks.” Or, more to the point, “bitch you ain’t gotta call my phone.” But Crack isn’t just about drama. Z-Ro‘s also a spitter in the purest sense, the midpoint between 2Pac‘s raw emotion and Bone‘s singsong technicality. The screwed “25 Lighters” finds him freestyling for a good nine minutes straight just because he can.

The production, split between Ro himself and underground H-Town stalwarts like Cory Mo and Mr. Lee is appropriately morose. Post-Screw, the above ground Houston sound has mostly turned larger then life, more showboating car show buzz than promethazine burn out. In Z-Ro‘s hands it’s just mournful (and, in some ways, much closer to DJ Screw‘s original vision). Consider Biggie‘s once grandiose boasts of “large estates with larger steaks.” Now slowed to a crawling hook on “Made” they evoke a suffocating emptiness. Z-Ro sees straight through the vapidity of bottle popping models and a prime cut fillet. Self made millionaire or not, he’s still alone.