At first, it wasn’t necessarily clear how seriously one should take Zelooperz, his defining traits being “Internet rap oddball” and “Danny Brown protege.” Discovered in the lead-up to his much-hyped 2014 album Old, Brown plucked the then 20-year-old rapper out of obscurity and gifted him the hook on “Kush Coma,” a standout A$AP Rocky-featuring track. A member of Brown’s loosely organized Bruiser Brigade from then on and up to current day (at this point, the collective has evolved into a genuine label), these two Detroit-based rappers have been tethered to each other in more ways than one ever since, with Zelooperz’s signature squawky vocals and taste for esoteric production (both knowingly silly and devotedly avant-garde) echoing the preferred aesthetics of his mentor. Debut album Bothic fell victim to dismissive critical comparisons of this nature, unfavorably casting it against the still-celebrated Old, and ultimately looking past its qualities in anticipation of Brown’s fourth album, which would arrive a few months later. Zelooperz seems unbothered by this narrative, or at least hasn’t allowed it to slow him down, with the rapper/painter (now 30) only building momentum in the seven years between Bothic’s release and now, dropping eight records along the way.
A new one, Microphone Fiend, which landed at the start of April, puts Zelooperz at an impressive nine albums since 2016, a rather remarkable pace for any musician, even in the hyper-fast streaming era. It’s also remarkable that his output remains solid and dynamic, Microphone Fiend offering no particular drop in quality from the horror-tinged Gremlin, nor the more freewheeling Dyno-Mite (on which he and Danny reconvene to trade verses over the Crash Bandicoot music) — both highlights of this recent rapid-fire release schedule. On the other hand, Microphone Fiend isn’t so much better or so much more distinctive than those other projects (pop R&B concept album Get WeT.Radio could at least claim the latter), all of them decent enough, often amusing, but generally a few songs short of being wholly great. Album opener “Climate Change” kicks things off by sampling Little Richard’s 1988 Grammy presenter gig (“And the best new artist is… Me!”), as if to signal Zelooperz frustrations with the continued lack of industry respect, before launching into a jaunty, rolling Chuck Inglish beat worthy of Chance the Rapper. His vocal affectations end up landing somewhere near Chano’s as well, while still often bringing DB to mind, operating on a gradient that runs from a yelp to a bark.
To his credit, Zelooperz never appears constrained by these seemingly narrow parameters, challenging his delivery to adapt to a range of production possibilities (“Demon n Deities” taking this to a near experimental extreme), though really it’s mostly the more aggressive, hard-hitting beats (“Bustin Jieber,” “Can’t Fill Your Tank”) that provoke his strongest performances, as has often been the case in the past. At times a charming, elusive figure, at other times a bit too taken with juvenalia and “weird humor,” Zelooperz continues to define his world with Microphone Fiend without necessarily making huge progress. Still, one gets the sense that this record, like the rest, could be a piece of a bigger picture. The last few years have found Zelooperz collaborating fruitfully outside and underneath the Bruiser Brigade umbrella, finding worthy peers like Earl Sweatshirt, BbyMutha, Pink Siifu, Fly Anakin, etc. — inspiring artists with interesting approaches to the genre. This, in tandem with the consistent quality of his projects, is reason enough to continue to believe Zelooperz is carving out a notable space in hip hop right now.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.