Few living hip-hop producers can make people drool with the words "beat tape" like 9th Wonder. In fact, few producers in 2016 can make people drool about a beat tape at all, not with mainstream hip-hop's dependence on a "pop star" rapper at the core of every song, album, or video. Pop landscape be damned, though, a beat tape is exactly what 9th Wonder presents with his new, thirty-six-track instrumental album, Zion.
Here, the producer known for his distinct style of heavily vintage samples and soulful loops jumps excitedly between fully formed songs and offhand ideas. Some tracks clock in at less than a minute, while others push past the three-minute mark. Some are instantly recognizable as the backbones of fan favorites from the likes of rappers Phonte and Big K.R.I.T., who culled songs such as "Life of Kings," "Eternally," and "Life Is a Gamble" from the spoils gathered here.
Much of the less-recognizable, unreleased material on Zion, however, feels like the delightfully familiar kin of songs from 9th's prolific past. It will be hard for Murs fans, for example, to not hear the similarities between Zion's "Gilly Chop" and the classic beat from the Murray's Revenge song, "Silly Girl." The tender "Manhattan Down" calls to mind the spirit of "Brooklyn in My Mind" from the decade-old The Dream Merchant, Vol. 2.
9th's bar-ready loops can seem maddeningly unfinished without the accompanying raps. But Zion, in more than one sense, is simply a beginning. For 9th, it represents the opening salvo in a wave of instrumental releases, as the producer has said he plans to release "every beat I've made over the next few years." And for longtime listeners, dancing around this track list is an entry point for hours of digital crate-digging fun, replete with Spotify catalogs, YouTube playlists, and Wikipedia articles.
Some things are still worth drooling over.