Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read” burst onto the hip-hop scene in 2012, becoming a fashion runway staple and receiving remixes from Busta Rhymes, Tricky, and many other artists. An ice-cold dis track aimed at nameless enemies of Katz and guest Njena Reddd Foxxx, it queered the tradition of rap battle rhymes. While insults like “Ima take that bitch to college/ Ima give that bitch some knowledge” could be taken at face value — its video is set in a school, with Katz playing a teacher — the song was inspired by “Paris Is Burning” and the ballroom scene’s concept of “reading” as slicing a rival to size. The song’s brilliance, hand in hand with Katz’s own minimalist production and smoothly menacing voice, was recognizing its intersection with hip-hop’s more macho competitive boasting.
Katz has been defined by “Ima Read” and its place in a moment in music history eight years ago when a group of openly LGBTQ rappers — himself, Le1f, Mykki Blanco, Azealia Banks, Angel Haze — suddenly got attention from the media and record labels. None of them went on to become stars. Banks came closest, with her debut single “212” charting in Europe, but her own homophobia and addiction to starting ugly social media feuds torpedoed her career and pissed off fans.
Since then, the hip-hop landscape has changed. Without becoming completely taboo, homophobia has lessened, and artists like out lesbian rapper Young M.A. and Brockhampton (featuring gay rapper Kevin Abstract) have had hits. We’ll have to see what the future holds for Lil Nas X after he came out while “Old Town Road” was in the middle of its historic reign at #1.
Katz was actually a fictional character created by artist Ojay Morgan for a performance back in 2007. He was intended to portray “the dark prince of the catwalk,” as Katz described his persona on “3rd Dgre.” But the success of “Ima Read,” released years after it was recorded, enabled Morgan to give up his day job and pursue music full-time. Making a splash with one’s first single can be a curse rather than a blessing; music history is littered with one-hit wonders. Although he signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent label and released the underwhelming “DRKLNG” mixtape in 2013, followed by sporadic bits of new music and guest appearances, his debut album never arrived until this year. I don’t know why a full project took so long, but singer Poppy, who released two albums for Mad Decent Records and then left the label, has described it as a tax write-off for Diplo.
“Less Is Moor,” released on his own label, is Katz’s second shot at an introduction. Beginning and ending with instrumentals, it’s structured as though we’re entering a debauched nightclub. Katz abandons the beautiful simplicity of “Ima Read” for an industrial/ noise rap sound. “Intro To Less” starts with a sung “Zebra fucking Katz” tag (used throughout his music), a spoken word sample in French using his name, huge-sounding Gothic synthesizers, and a drum machine doing its best impression of a machine gun. The outro “Exit 2 Void” takes us out of his world with the same level of dissonance.
“Ish” gets the album off to a more conventional start. It’s the closest we get to a banger, even with fuzzed-out electronics. Katz celebrates a night going wild in the club, rapping “all I want to do is keep the dance floor jumping… shake your ass to the bass like you’re starting something.” Its video depicts Katz dancing his heart out and twisting his body for the pleasure of a voyeuristic audience that seems to be expecting violence to break out. “Been Known” is even more dance-oriented, but the rest of “Less Is Moor” balances a desire to seduce the listener with challenging sonics.
The production on “Less Is Moor” is full of colorful detail. “Lousy” punctuates its moody grind with feedback shards. “Zad Drumz” lives up to its title by starting off with ferocious drum’n’bass beats. “No 1 Else” uses a sample of a choir, then breaks the meditative vibe by suddenly throwing jarring sound effects where most songs would place a snare drum.
“Necklace” is a lovelorn ballad with sung vocals over guitar, leaving out percussion. Unfortunately, it’s too fragmentary to have much impact, and Katz isn’t convincing in territory closer to R&B singers like Maxwell.
Katz is not shy away about expressing his libido. Most of “Less Is Moor” takes us on a sexually charged journey. “In In In” relates Katz’s adventures in the fashion world, nodding to gay singer/ songwriter Arthur Russell’s disco classic “Is It All Over My Face?” “Zad Drumz” goes even further, describing drug-fueled hedonism as percussion fades in and out over a looped moan.
“Lick It N Split” wonders “how you make that dick split,” quickly passing the mic to British rapper Shygirl. She and Katz ride the uptempo beat without breaking a sweat.
With “Less Is Moor,” Katz stakes on a claim on a body of work and personality as an artist, not just one song and a place in a “queer rap” scene that was largely a media construction. Unlike Katz’s previous mixtapes, one comes away from this project with a clear sense of who he is.
ZEBRA KATZ | “Less Is Moor” | ZFK Records | Drops Mar. 20 | zebrakatz.com