An ear for great beats has always been Smoke DZA’s not-so-secret weapon. None of his previous projects has demonstrated this to the same degree as Dream.Zone.Achieve, his latest album (that’s album, not mixtape, mind you).
It’s not that his rapping here is any worse than on any of his past releases; in fact, the guy is still improving on the foundations he impressively laid back on his breakthrough George Kush Da Button. Since that project – through his great mixtape T.H.C (The Hustle’s Catalogue) and the fantastic Harry Fraud-produced Rugby Thompson - DZA has been improving steadily, fleshing out his persona and getting a little more adventurous with flows and internal rhyme schemes.
If he sounds a little less hungry and eager to prove himself than he did on the energised Rugby Thompson, DZA is still pushing himself in a technical sense; he really does build a heightened propensity for rapping about topics other than his prodigious weed consumption.
There are still a lot of ganja references of course, but DZA has stated in the run-up to the release of Dream.Zone.Achieve that he wanted to paint a more personal, in depth picture of himself on this record, and the efforts do show. Granted, his easy-going weed talk and braggadocio are still some of his strongest points; however, when he gets to flossing or a vague, more petulant defiance against perceived haters, things become get a little tiresome. Elsewhere though, on a song like “Maybe”, it’s genuinely quite revelatory to hear such an archetypal stoner rapper get so invested in a song about the damaging effects his dedication to a rap career has had on his personal relationships.
Still, it’s without question that the beats that carry this project. Dream.Zone.Achieve tires on for far too long and, capable and charismatic though he is, DZA’s inability to transcend to anything truly revelatory means that he struggles not to fade in to the background a little over the 21-song record’s colossal running time.
Sonically, though, the highlights remain present. Though DZA isn’t a producer himself, this sentiment reflects almost as well on Smoke as it does on his beat makers: it isn’t often you get a mid-tier rap release with a stacked production plate hitting on such a consistently high level as this.
DZA’s bread and butter is smooth, fuzzy, smoke drenched soul; think the pillowy, airy beats that Smoke’s homie Curren$y (who of course shows up here) has spit his best bars over. “Jigga Flow” aims to become the king of bass while fellow early highlight “Ghost of Dipset” (appropriately featuring an on-point Cam’ron) is simply a classic soul flip with Smoke’s trademark faded touches.
If one thing can be said about the album’s length, it’s that it gives Smoke some time to stray out from his comfort zone, though it’s nice to hear him speak towards atmospheric grit of New York City alongside Joey Bada$$ on “Fhvt Bvstvrd”. DZA is less effective when he tries his hand at traditional and unoriginal bangers like “Tropicana Roses” or “Count Me In”. DZA struggles to sell any sort of real intensity, but the beats here are still more detailed and inviting of dissection than they would first appear.
The problem with this Dream.ZONE.Achieve, then, really does come down to deviating from DZA’s previously established, less-is-more formula. Musically, the project is consistent, but the highlights are still piled towards the front of the LP. Consequently, the album tapers off. The run time also gives Smoke’s minor deficiencies as a rapper time to sink in. The album’s vague, eponymous three-part structure provides some idea of what he was trying to achieve, but the variations between the ‘acts’ are minor and fail to shine through. There is an album’s worth of work here that easily stands up to Smoke’s best, yet the surrounding clutter inevitably chains DZA’s potential from reaching full form.