In a recent interview on the Rap Radar podcast, Murda Beatz reaffirms his position that producers are the “new artists.” This writer understands Murda’s overall perspective on the branding and attention that comes from being The Artist, but wishes to offer a slight counterpoint: producers have always been artists, just without a platform to tell their own story. Now, as the Social Media Era has ushered rap music into the Era of The Producer, as Mike-WiLL Made It and Metro Boomin and others are able to wear multiple hats and sell out shows like "artists", craft projects like A&Rs and dictate the radio (playlists) like DJs, it only makes sense that someone with so much positive influence to bestow has also decided to claim his stake in the game.

As the oldest child of a military family, Zaytoven’s drive and work ethic have never been under question. Since he first picked up an instrument in his father’s church, he hasn’t looked back. And once he found his niche with the piano and other keyboard instruments, the transition to rap was natural. Raised in the Bay Area until the mid-90s (where he already managed to hustle his way into collabing with the likes of E-40), Zay had already found his passion when he arrived in Atlanta to finish high school. And before too many detours - such as a side gig as a barber - could derail what he believed God had in store for him, he met Gucci Mane.

Since that fateful day in his mama’s basement, Zay has become the backbone of southern trap music. Still a church-going man, Zay immediately found the soul in the gritty, real-life narratives he was suddenly soundtracking. His eclectic influences have always shaped his music and they proved to shape his worldview as well, allowing for a true kinship to be formed with the likes of Gucci Mane and OJ Da Juiceman all the way to Usher. During the previous decade, he’s been the understated X factor of many ATL Moments - “Versace” only marked the start of his rise as a mainstay in modern rap.    

The minute we hear the intro, with Gucci on his Birdman tip, eloquently tallying off Zay’s accolades over some elegant keys, we know this isn’t about to be like Zay’s other minor forays into solo work. Rather, this was to be his proper debut to the world. “The man of many aliases,” as Gucci so perfectly put it, would finally have a chance to stand behind his work in a way that he’d been too humble to attempt in the past. But where others may prematurely be attempting to put their stamp on middling work, Zay has long-since earned the right to his own platform.

When Gucci earnestly confesses that Zaytoven has created the soundtrack to his life, it’s a sentiment that’s probably echoed daily by countless ATL natives, let alone listeners from all around the world. The pettiness of the “who started trap music” debate between Gucci and T.I. becomes irrelevant on Zay’s album; because, regardless of the man in the booth, it was Zay on the boards for some of the biggest moments in this subgenre of hip-hop. If anything, the fact that Zay and Tip haven’t really worked together until now only highlights the fact that Gucci and Tip are vying for two different positions. At the end of the day, they’re both on the Mt. Rushmore - as long as there is room made for Zaytoven as well.

While last year’s appetizer, Trapping Made it Happen, stayed true to its titular thesis statement, pulling only from a select few rappers that weren’t already a staple of the Atlanta trap scene, this debut is decidedly more far reaching than last year’s mixtape. Not only are the features precise, each and every artist tapped for this occasion manage to make a worthwhile appearance. And while fans may believe they know what to expect from Zay in 2018, the beats are truly diverse and not entirely reliant on his calling card (those damn keys that just sound so good no matter who’s saying what on them). Instead, some compositions here are clearly meant to flirt with the charts (“Go Get The Money”; “What You Think”; “Black Privilege”), while others are meant to rattle out of bass-boosted car speakers (“East Atlanta Day”).

Since you already have so many classics to choose from when it comes to Zaytoven and his usual partners, it’s those all too fleeting new vibes that are found when a stray Pusha T verse suddenly comes on or you get Lil Uzi Vert delivering a sweeping hook about self-love. To his credit, each of the 12 songs on this album are carefully chosen to fulfill a given aesthetic and Zaytoven never compromises the origins of his style to fit a certain pocket. On what other album can you get OJ Da Juiceman on a song with Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign or Plies on a song with Trouble and Trey Songz? There’s a tangible air of reverence for Zay and his craft that is made apparent subtly - by the level of performances on here - and not-so-subtly - by way of name drops in literally every other verse.

It would take a day and a half to comb through each and every quotable on the album, so we won’t (just know that Offset absolutely ate “Back On It”). But it wouldn’t be a proper Zaytoven review without touching on the Future cuts, now would it? The first of the two, “Boot Up,” which strategically doesn’t arrive until we’re already more than halfway through the record, is a distilled dose of Super Future. Entirely undeniable in its rowdiness but nothing too special for this historically potent duo. Contrastingly, “Mo Reala” closes us out with arguably the best iteration of Zay’s stylings: a future Hendrix ballad waxing poetic about the trials of fame and fortune, and their complicated relationship with fantasy. If this is any sign of the quality of material being vaulted for Beast Mode 2, it may indeed be the game-changing classic fans have been hyping it up to be.

And, as this album proves, if anyone can deliver under surmounting pressure, it’s the perpetually cool Zaytoven.