Earlier this year, Z-Ro shocked fans by announcing that his No Love Boulevard album would be his last. The Mo City Don seemed more than ready to wrap up a storied career, but then he completely changed course just six months later. The retirement, hiatus or whatever it should be called, ended as quickly as it began when Z-Ro released a brand new album, Codeine, to close out the year.
These career moves are certainly confusing. Maybe Z-Ro can’t leave rap alone because the game needs him. Maybe the skills still pay the bills. Whatever the case may be, the Screwed Up Click member hasn’t lost a step. If Codeine accomplishes anything, it’s showing Z-Ro can still create good music to satisfy his loyal fans.
Thematically, Codeine covers much of the well-worn territory that Z-Ro has explored over the span of the past two decades. His palpable frustration and blunt way of dealing with haters are on full display once again, mixed in with some more odes to his hometown (“I’m So Houston” with Lil Keke and Big Baby Flava) and another 420-friendly anthem (“Smoke Some Weed”) for relaxation. With over 20 albums under his belt, the redundancy in content is understandable.
Even with its been-there, done-that nature, Codeine still manages to be entertaining. Producers Beanz N Kornbread, G&B and Synesthetic Nation provide a mix of slow, loud and banging beats and countrified funk that prompt inspired performances from Z-Ro. His wordplay’s still in top form on “Hold Up Bitch” and those Rother Vandross vocals are as lush as ever on “Still A Player.”
The lyrical prowess or singing capabilities haven’t diminished, but what’s most important is Z-Ro’s steadfast authenticity. His real indignation is what’s resonated with fans for years. Although he’s celebrated as an underground legend, Z-Ro has remained perpetually aggrieved by disrespect.
It also extends to his stomping grounds, something he tackles on the standout cut “My City.” The veteran MC throws a hard chin check at H-Town outsiders and traitors over an expansive Synesthetic Nation production, rapping, “Culture vultures on some Ted Bundy shit/ All they be doing is raping my city/ You think it’s cool, but my people starving/ And you look like a Pappadeaux plate in my city.”
Codeine isn’t a flawless return for Z-Ro though. There are some glaring and odd decisions amid the many highlights. The opener’s pairing of an 8-bit video game sound with a Pimp C-sampled hook clashes, and the novelty doesn’t last long. The overuse of Lil Flea to close out the album is another wrong turn. Using the Street Military member on the hook would’ve been fine but letting him get so much airtime makes it clear his flow’s not as nimble as it once was.
Minor quibbles aside, it’s impressive that Z-Ro’s music is still so irresistible. Despite having a discography rivaling the prolificness of some jazz greats, he remains capable of crafting high-quality work. Codeine is a reminder of that and proof he’s not remotely close to declining. Maybe a retirement tease is just what’s needed to remind fans of that.