Z-Ro is the saddest rapper in the world. If you include mixtapes and collaborations, the Houston veteran has released more than 20 albums, and there's scarcely a happy moment to be heard on any of them. On a near-endless string of masterfully bleak anthems, the same sentiments come up over and over, rendered vividly in Ro's dusky, depressive drawl: He'd rather be by himself, he doesn't trust you, doesn't want you around his money, stay out of his way, don't call his phone, he's been burned too many times. It's impossible to imagine the guy actually smiling. He's like Leonard Cohen or something.
So it's a weird and not altogether pleasant shock to hear Ro opening his new Crack with the rapturous "Baby Girl," an honest-to-God one-woman-man love song: "I'm not going to the club tonight, I'm staying home/ Me and my woman, some Isley Brothers and citrus Patron." Uh, what? He's happy now? And does that mean he's going to suck now?
Well, no. Turns out Z-Ro's not happy at all; "Baby Girl" was just an inexplicable anomaly. On "Call My Phone," the very next track, he's back to his usual distrust: "Leave my money in my pocket, I never leave it with hoes/ Put a ring on my own finger because I sleep with Z-Ro." Z-Ro basically has two settings: Unbelievably down ("Lonely," where he doesn't want to die alone but knows all these women are trifling) and virtuosically dispassionate (the nine-minute screwed-up freestyle "25 Lighters").
Most of Crack returns us to one of the most consistent and durable personal aesthetics in rap. He's singing a little more here and fast-rapping a little less, but every Z-Ro album pretty much sounds like every other Z-Ro album: that asphalt-rough mutter meshing gorgeously with drizzly, low-budget Texas truck-knocker beats. Quality-wise, Crack falls somewhere in the middle of Z-Ro's catalog, which means it's very, very good, albeit not quite classic. But we've never heard Z-Ro switch moods as violently and abruptly as he does between "Baby Girl" and the rest of the album. Is Z-Ro OK? Should we be worried about him?