The West Side Chicago rapper with swag to spare.
"What you do to my house? Get out of my house, man."
"I ain't got no seasoning salt."
ZMoney is swivelling around in his chair in an office at Complex in the Time Life Building 35 stories above 6th Avenue in Midtown, Manhattan, and talking on a cell phone. He's joined by a five-man crew (he introduces each member) who've travelled with him from Chicago's West Side, draped in chains, gold rings wrapped around their fingers, with belt buckles that look as fresh and expensive as their owners look gritty and unrefined. Behind the severe masked expression common to the Chicago streets, they cast a distrustful eye on their surroundings, perhaps a bit out of their element inside the office building. All except for ZMoney himself, perpetually grinning and exuding a surplus of confidence as he talks to an undisclosed friend back in Chicago.
A second friend interrupts Z's conversation: "I don't want nobody in my truck, lord. Nobody in my truck."
Have as much fun as you want, lord. Have fun. I want you to have a threesome in Z's room. Get naked.
Z continues talking into the phone: "Man, get out my crib for real, bro."
Another friend, over Z's shoulder, speaks up suddenly into the phone: "Have as much fun as you want, lord. Have fun. I want you to have a threesome in Z's room. Get naked."
"A day in the life," says Merk, ZMoney's manager.
That was a September day, just a few months after the release of Z's Rich B4 Rap and Heroin Muzik mixtapes, which arrived to little fanfare in the wake of low-key regional hits "Want My Money" and "Regular." Chance The Rapper used the former song in the trailer for his career-making Acid Rap mixtape. Since that time, Chance has become a Justin Bieber collaborator, while Z's worked his own grind, releasing songs and music videos on a regular basis, and opening a restaurant named Emma's after his grandmother.
As of this writing, ZMoney is sitting in the Cook County jail, after being dinged by his parole officer for travelling out of state, when he attended the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin. (His hearing is in late May.) Although he may serve some time, he's got enough music in the can to sustain interest until he's released. Today he dropped The Greatest Trap Show On Earth, a collection of singles released since Rich B4 Rap (plus a few of that tape's highlights). It's a comically misleading title, as Z's music is sparse and subtle, with none of the Jeezy-like grandiosity the name implies. The best-of compilation is his first full-length release in a year, serving as an appetizer for the three-disc 3mpire set for release later this summer.
While Z's profile has risen among Chicago street-rap aficionados, he's not exactly an easy sell to most critics. Like many contemporary rappers, his flow is a mumbled stream of syllables that demands multiple listens for those not rooted in regional dialect to decipher. He's less concerned with uplift or positivity or lyricism or the kinds of consciousness that make an artist an easy sell to the thoughtful classes. Instead, Z's appeal is all about swagger, a subtle brand of cocky humor, and a delicate musical touch. Which isn't to say that it's an empty exercise in style—although he has style in spades. There's an unusual quality at the heart of the ZMoney project that's elusive to define, but could be called, simply, "art."
Twenty-year-old Zernardo "ZMoney" Tate grew up in various parts of Chicago's West Side, in the tough Lawndale and Austin communities. He went to grammar school with Chance The Rapper's original touring DJ, DJ Oreo. His parents, like many Chicagoans, came from Mississippi, and his rap style reflects those Southern roots. "Coming from where I'm from," he says, "I never really felt [Chicago] rappers. It's just my style. Shouts out to all of them, but I never really felt them. I always had that South. That South in everything."
He didn't start out as a rapper; his uncle was a basketball player, as was he, until he dropped out of high school as a sophomore. Like his father before him—who is currently incarcerated—Z turned to the streets. "I needed some money," he say neutrally, as if it were a simple fact rather than a moral dilemma. He started hustling, but always had eyes elsewhere. "I always wanted to be in the entertainment business."
Rapping hadn't occurred to him yet, so he started throwing parties. "The first party I had was when I was sixteen," he recalls. "The place—we had three or four thousand people in there. The second floor was bouncing, finna cave in. So the Fire Marshall came in and said the party was over with." Z's party-promoting career dovetailed with his interest in rap, but he preferred to stay behind the scenes. "I always wanted somebody out my group that could rap. Like, my man! Yeah, we gon’ push him! But the whole time, I had everything that I was looking for." It wasn't until an impromptu trip to Miami in the summer of 2012—where he met Lil Wayne and Rocko—that he returned to Chicago and realized rap was something he wanted to do, too.
Jassel Neal met ZMoney through a mutual friend, Bigg Baby, and they clicked immediately in the studio. JNeal is heavily involved in the ZMoney project, and sees himself as more than a beat maker (although he does that too). He raps as well, but with Z, he considers himself more of a producer. His job is about channeling ZMoney's talents and bottling up the product—songwriting, concepts, and building beats to complement the rapper's lyrics.
"I liked Z ‘cause he was himself," says JNeal. "I meet a lot of rappers, and a lot of rappers wanna be a rapper who’s already out. Z had the confidence in being himself."
JNeal is a craftsman, one who has studied pop music—his favorite producers are Dre and Kanye, whose production styles sound worlds away from his own. Although his style is rooted in contemporary street rap, the compositional style is more minimal. Hi-hats drop out, certain frequencies filtered to sound underwater, a single element twisting around ZMoney's slurred bars. "Most people, when they make music, they have the beat and then they write the lyrics to the beat," JNeal explains. "They work with beat makers. When I’m working with the artist, I’m building a beat around what they’re saying. I’m gonna make sure that they’re able to be heard, even if I have to take an instrument out."
It's rare for a rapper to just jump in the game with no experience and continually deliver. Anyone can luck into a hot single. Consistency is the real test. ZMoney is a natural talent, one whose personality beams through every pore on track after track. But what makes him a promising star is that he's got someone there to focus that energy.
As a result, the duo's work together is startlingly consistent. Where most solo acts struggle to balance the conflicting requirements of their art—craft and swag, song and style, tradition and audacity—JNeal and ZMoney hold a tension that keeps things unpredictable. It's not that the music is especially deep; there is a formula. But within the confines of that structure, they're able to make the necessary changes to sustain interest. Like how Z flips into a different flow on the second verse of the Young Chop-produced "10 Hours," or the way "Dope Boy Magic"'s production never quite kicks in, seeking resolution that never comes. Z's stuff is not as weird as, say, Young Thug; but the trade-off for those small-bore experimental tendencies is a degree of consistency. If ZMoney and JNeal have a historical parallel, it's the Big Tymers, where humor and street edge blend in a potent low-stakes package.
He's not super-scientific in its lyricism, but the lyrics are not pointless; rather, they're funny, audaciously so. While Z claims Gucci and Rocko as inspirations, JNeal's coaching is just as important: "When I first started recording, JNeal said, 'I’m gonna keep it real with you. Whatever you want to say, record it. Don’t be shy. If you want to say anything, record it.' I said, 'alright, bet.' He drops a beat. I’m like, 'like this, like this, like this,'"—Z is rapping at this point, sitting in the Complex office, referencing his song "Like This." Z continues. "He’s like, 'go lay that shit down! Go lay that shit down!' That’s why I say a lot of shit in my music, crazy things where people are like, 'where’d he come from with it?'"
JNeal, on the other hand, is largely self-taught. Among the artists he's learned the most from, Eminem for starters: "That confidence, saying whatever you feel, that 'all publicity is good publicity regardless.' It gives you that mind state. The arrogance, Kanye West arrogance. And then to learn my flow, I got that off Lil Wayne. I used to pay attention to Lil’ Wayne, Tha Carter, I just noticed how people used to just love everything he said. I just used to think, like, it can’t be everything he’s saying, it’s gotta be the way he’s saying it. That’s what made me get me into breathing techniques."
Of course, figuring out everything goes into the creative mix is ultimately impossible, and whether or not ZMoney can be a success on a larger stage will require a sustained effort. Until his most recent arrest, things seemed to be moving along, but JNeal recognizes how the other shit could be a drag on the operation. "The biggest challenge that would come with music and working would be in our personal lives. Cause I live a certain life, he lives a certain life. But it ain’t no big thang. Once we’re in the studio together, it’s all good from there."
It's not hard to see what JNeal means, considering the fact that Z's been forced to promote his latest tape from inside a jail cell. But last September, ZMoney seemed confident in this brand-new direction.
"Right now, I’ve never loved nothing like I love rapping. I even played basketball—I was ranked top 50 in the state. I could have been in the NBA right now, I feel. But I didn’t love it. I didn’t want to put my all into it. With this right here? I really love this. This is something I’m really pushing. I’m working. Every day I wake up, it’s music. It’s something to do with this. Every day. I’m not doing nothing without doing something to help me with my music."