Zebra Katz - DRKLNG
Posted on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 | 1 Comment
Of the supposed wave of "queer rap" artists providing a fresh new perspective to the genre (as well as a much-needed corrective to still-present homophobia within hip-hop), one of the biggest stars and most provocative voices was that of Zebra Katz. A conceptual, performance-based persona from the man born Ojay Morgan, he burst out with the remarkable single Ima Read: a stark, violent take on dancefloor battles - to 'read' is to challenge someone on the dancefloor - that also scans as a take on the hip-hop use of the word 'bitch' taken to a nihilistic extreme as well as a kind of twisted pro-education anthem, backed by a stomping minimal beat supplied by Katz himself. It was one of Endless Window's favourite songs of last year, and almost overnight Zebra Katz went from obscurity to a media and fashion sensation.
Now comes his new mixtape, DRKLNG, his most high-profile release since. It's a short effort that teases as much as it delivers - one of the more intriguing aspects of the Zebra Katz project is how much it appeals to harder and more old-school hip-hop sensibilities whilst still challenging them with the gender and sexual plays of his work, dismissing the more recent trend of the mixtape as an album-in-disguise (i.e. an album too riddled with expensive samples to release commerically) in favour of the kind of fragmented, promotional push it was before. Certainly, as much as anything else, DRKLNG is about pushing forward the Zebra Katz brand, sticking to minimal beats and boasting a headline-making guest performance (of which more later). Tearing through twelve tracks in twenty-nine minutes works wonders for him though: it's just enough room for him to start fleshing out Zebra Katz without having to sacrifice the intensity of his performance.
Opening track Josephine Effect is an ideal, and very funny opener, playing on his new found status with its sarcastic celebrity name-dropping - "I just wanna sit and chill and smoke with Jay-Z / Shit, yeah motherfucker, bring Yeezy!"- that positions Zebra as the curious, alien gatecrasher to the party he's truly meant to be. It rides out on a great, gothic beat that bleeds right into the menacing Pulla Stunt, which again sees him subverting from within, only this time it's the standard gangsta threat that gets the Zebra treatment, the slow menace of Zebra's delivery bringing out the subversive, uncensored exploration of male identity and sexuality. It's a track that works just fine as a hard-hitting minimal gangsta track, but works even better within the context of the persona.
Pulla Stunt is just one of the four tracks produced by New York club fixture Mike Dextro on the mixtape, alongside closing brag track Last Name, Katz (which, atypically for Katz so far, adds a sense of swing to the metronomic thud) and the brilliant mid-section duo of LST CTRL and Alone Now, the former all tightly-wound tension that pivots between violent urges and dark lust that then flows into a perfectly grimy cover of bubblegum classic I Think We're Alone Now - it's another funny and unsettling addition to the list of tropes and areas brought over to the Zebra Katz darkside.
The other big star of the mixtape, however, provides its one real low point. Getting Busta Rhymes in to rap over the Ima Read beat is something of a coup for Zebra Katz, a sign of authenticity for a project that flaunts its artificiality and duplicity whilst still punching harder than any peers (not to mention of Zebra Katz's rising status). The end result however is less satisfying, as Busta Rhymes tries to tap into the dark sexuality of Zebra Katz but without any of the nuance or multiple meanings that Katz weaves in. As such, when Busta turns up for a minute and a half, it comes across as crass and needless where Zebra is vital and challenging: somehow contriving to mention bitches even more than the original, here there's no extra meaning - it really just is about how he's going to "take that bitch to my fortress / Might fuck around, fuck her in her office". It's a rare slip-up in the creation of Zebra Katz, one that pulls it out of the strange and into the ordinary.
That one lapse aside though, DRKLNG continues to build on the hype behind Zebra Katz in the best way, giving us a longer dose of his deep, charismatic flow, his basic, shocking and hyper-aware lyrical style and, of course, more of those thudding hypnotic beats that serve him so well. There's no new Ima Read here, but then that's not the point. This is where Zebra Katz starts to become real, but only for those willing to step into his territory and to meet him head on. After this, I'm as excited as ever to follow his trail and see where it leads.