Before Fort Worth’s rap scene blossomed into the vibrant, talent-rich rhyme factory it now is, Smoothvega, a.k.a. Lorenzo Zenteno, stood atop the hip-hop hierarchy and looked poised for big things. The buzz around him was palpable. He collaborated with the likes of Paul Wall and Lil’ Flip, played to packed houses, and won almost universal critical acclaim.
But the road to stardom took a detour when real life blocked his path. Vega suffered immeasurable tragedy after the deaths of his mother and of a child.
The 30-year-old rapper and father of three didn’t put out an album for five years. Exclamation Point, his recently released LP recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jose Santiago of Music In Focus, is the proverbial storm finally erupting from the gathered clouds. Five years of pent-up emotions pour out over 16 tracks of tortured introspection.
With his raspy, confident delivery, Vega explores topics ranging from his absence from the rap game and mission to reclaim the throne, to the loss of his mother and marital infidelity. His flows aren’t what you’d call intricate, but that’s by design. He chooses to be more relatable than dizzying. His rap style is catchy, nimble, and adaptable. The message of each song is meant to be understood clearly.
For the most part, the music, produced by a small team of knob twisters, is tense and dramatic –– none more so than the album’s second song, “Call It How I See It,” about overcoming the mental strain of losing his mother, produced by Certified Bangerz. The track features some flashy guitar noodling and serious low end.
“I confess, emotionally I’m still a mess / I still have lingering effects from my mother’s death,” he raps aggressively.
“I rose through the rubble to make it through the struggle / Now I hate to bust your bubble, but my motherfucking hustle / Is stronger than ever now / I can’t hold back / It’s a well-known fact / It’s been a long road back.”
Some of the album’s most touching and vulnerable moments come in a series of open letters Vega delivers to his wife. “Send Me an Angel,” produced by EyeJay, is a tender love song in which Vega tells his wife he’d choose her “over all the bright lights.”
Whereas “You & Me” is a Freudian self-analysis about losing his wife’s trust because of his “battle versus lust,” created by his displaced affection after losing his mother.
Smoothvega, a Diamond Hill native, gives shout-outs to Fort Worth in tracks like “For My City” and “Grass Roots,” the latter serving as a warning shot to up-and-comers trying to usurp the Fort Worth hip-hop throne.
“The Godfather of my city / And I ain’t got to say it / I’ve come a long way / But I’ve yet to really make it.”
“Hold it Down,” featuring Paul Wall and produced by Christian Suarez, is the kind of made-for-radio catchy rap that could vault Vega onto the national stage –– where many observers thought he would be by now. –– Eric Griffey
Birds of Night
For a while, Birds of Night put out agreeably hooky music. The Denton band’s 2011 debut, Snap, bopped along with jangly, ’60s-nodding power pop. The reverb-splashed anthemic rock of their 2013 follow-up, We’re a Family Now, sounded a little bit like Youth and Young Manhood-era Kings of Leon. But now, after four years and a lineup change, the band sounds like its own thing.
Birds of Night released its third record in April, a seven-song self-titled LP that keeps frontman Andrew Rothlisberger’s ear for melodic lines and sarcasm. When he sings, “I ain’t scratchin’ at your phantom limb” over the fuzzed-out licks of “Love Is Stoned,” it’s like Pentagram fronted by Jim James.
There’s a sardonic richness to Rothlisberger’s tenor, and it contrasts smartly with the band’s darker, heavier sound, courtesy of producer McKenzie Smith (Midlake, Sarah Jaffe). The traces of Kings of Leon golden-oldies still remain, but band also pulls some black magic out of a lot of Sabbath-inspired riffage.
And yet. Caging these Birds with a particular sonic signifier doesn’t do this album justice. The sweeping piano chords that introduce “Some Kind of Man” are but one clever feint in an album full of turns leading into a lot of cool payoffs. It’s the sound of a band digging outside its past to open up the future. –– Steve Steward