After announcing his addition to the Black Label last year, Zion.T has finally released his first album with the YG subsidiary. Fans had to wait nearly four years for the soul crooner to release his sophomore full-length work. Considering the somewhat less-than-stellar impression of anything YG nowadays, many expressed concern his illustrious return would go much in the way of Lauryn Hill’s. However, what we got was more in the vein of Frank Ocean, and just as with “Endless” and “Blond(e),” Zion.T’s sophomore effort was well worth the wait.
When the first twining chords of the song introduce themselves, the impression is listeners will be blessed with an aural experience that will leave them blissed-out in their own skin. By the time Zion.T’s smooth vocal makes its presence known, we’re already wrapped in something soft, satiny sounds complimented by the velvet ease of the soul singer’s croon. Then as the Digable Plaents-esque bridge walks its way into the conversation (two words: upright bass!), leading us to a layered vocal, “Cinema” has made its way into the listener’s heart. The lyrics are just as visceral as the textured construction itself, painting a picture as serene as the purity of Zion.T’s voice:
15 minutes before,
We’re sitting next to each other
No, we’re sitting across each other
Looking at the skin-colored screen
You know what I mean
Your eyes are blue
2. “The Song”
Leading with a simple piano riff, “The Song” is equal parts simple and cheeky, Zion.T seems fond of breaking the proverbial fourth wall—he informs us that even as he pens this song in hopes it doesn’t become popular, as listeners we’ve already got the song’s melody and its lyrics stuck in our heads. He then goes on to say he hopes the track isn’t forgotten as easily as other popular songs—because this song is for a special someone, and he wants her to pin it to her heart, proclaiming at the song’s climax, “It’s your song.”
An interlude of sorts, this track is a bit of self-reflection, a man laying in bed, or perhaps sitting down with a warm beverage and contemplating the plight of his own existence. From its simple repeated lyrics and synth/beat construction, it may not seem like much of an existential crisis, but our protagonist certainly is taking a moment for introspection, noting that no matter what’s on his mind, “people just laugh whenever I talk.”
4. “Sorry (feat. Beenzino)”
Zion.T is quite fond of simplistic constructions, song composition acting as the ultimate canvas for his lyrics and vocal delivery. And what powerful use of vocals this man utilizes. The entire song is a bit of rocket love, blasting off to allow the listener to grab a star. The first pre-chorus alone is enough to make the heart swell to the point of exploding. One could float to the moon on the crest and fall of that whisper! Then the power of the harmonization at the song’s penultimate bridge would bring you right back to earth. All this to apologize to a lover.
5. “The Bad Guys”
From the interstellar flight of “I’m Sorry,” we get something so rooted in the earth, it clutches onto the listener and forces her to stay there. The bass groove of this track is so heavy it nestles in the chest. It’s made even more profound because of the quiet moments within the song itself. Zion.T knows his R&B, at times, as in “The Bad Guys,” separating it into its individual elements: rhythm and blues. He makes use of the ever-popular half-sing, a rhythmic lilt that slides somewhere between rap and singing and creates its own cadence that works both against and in concert with the song’s internal beat. There’s a remarkable texture to this track that could be misleading. Many would only see it as a smoky piece of R&B. But really what we have here is the perfect example of Zion.T’s breadth as an artist. He’s deconstructed the musical makeup of the track and sewn in his vocal to create a song that’s seamless from beginning to end.
Okay, let’s for a moment skip the music here (Gasp! I know!) We’ve talked so much about just how musical Zion.T is that we may have missed how brilliant he is as a lyricist. He’s cheeky, as the best poets tend to be. But he’s also alarmingly clever. He makes a simple song about his shortcomings as a lover, singer, and overall human being and turns it into an indictment of not only his own “complexity” but also the redundant simplicity of everyone else around him. One could explicate the chorus itself and spend the better part of 45 minutes dissecting each syllable…. Which is exactly the point.
I’m COMPLEX than
I hate me more than
you hate me
I’m complex than
While GD’s delivery was tempered and mellowed for the more melodious track, he didn’t exactly add much dimension to it. His nod to the legendary Jay-Z lyric “99 Problems” gives a peek into GD’s own intelligence as a songwriter and saves his verse from being nothing more than an inflation to his own ego, bolstering of his own God complex. An unexpected breakdown toward the end was completely unnecessary, made even moreso with the few staccato notes of autotune thrown in there. The song’s title, however, suggests all these elements combined to create a complex listening experience, to perhaps construct a musical “complex” that took listeners to various layers of the artists inhabiting its digital mapping. In that aspect, it certainly does succeed.
7. “Wishes (2015)”
Though the entirety of “OO” is a look inside Zion.T the artist from an artist’s eyes, “Wishes” completely subverts all pretense and gives us Zion.T the man from Kim Hae-sol’s perspective. Again, simple musical construction—an acoustic guitar, a drum, and an organ—in order to make room for the lyrics and the voice that will carry them along. The complexity is all in the delivery. He talks about the hollowness of living up to the expectations of a crowd that demands he perform at their leisure, at the point where he puckers his lips to whistle for them nothing comes out. It’s a reflection of his inability to live up to lofty expectations as well as believing himself made of nothing but paper-thin skin and breath. Oddly enough, the solidity in his whistle comes when he proclaims that he’s nobody, as if the realization and supposed acceptance of that truth (as he sees it) makes him solid, makes him whole… makes him somebody.
8. “Cinema (Instrumental)”
This is one of those rare times where throwing in the instrumental actually makes sense. The bossa nova jazz construction of the tune makes it work both as a song for a soulful vocalist as well as the soundtrack to spending a lovely, breezy afternoon on one’s balcony, sipping wine or perhaps tea, just embracing the world, holding the fragrance of life tightly in the lungs and letting the Earth’s vibrations caress you.
“OO” is Zion.T’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” his musical attempt at looking inside himself and searching for the “Who” in the question “Who am I?” He’s done a masterful job of peeling back his layers, breaking down the sound to its least common particles and simply giving a man, his voice, and his story. In a time of some great storytellers, Zion.T emerges as one of the best, not simply painting portraits, but giving us intricate details to evolve the landscape into a living, breathing work of art.