During an interview with Blockstar DVDs Magazine in the early 2000s, Elzhi claimed to have cracked the code for the perfect rhyme pattern. The formula he spends the next two and a half minutes breaking down consists of oblique rhymes and other technical sleight of hand, and the Detroit rapper makes the language bend to his will as easy as telling someone one your day. This quick peek under the hood illuminates the otherworldly sense of control that endeared Elzhi to J Dilla and the band Slum Village when he joined in 2004 and continues to endear him to early rap fans. bars around the world. In a modern context, he sits perfectly alongside young spitters like JID and fellow Detroiter BabyTron; in their hands, the complexity is as transparent as the breath.

A rapper of Elzhi’s talent usually has an interest in finding a foil in a like-minded producer. For his latest project, Zhigeist, that sheet is Californian musician and singer Georgia Anne Muldrow. It might sound like an odd combo on paper, but Muldrow herself is no stranger to blending elements of R&B, jazz, funk, and rap to create everything from full-blown soul epics to beat tapes. In reality, Elzhi and Muldrow are kindred spirits — they both consider each other artistic aliens, and their styles are mutually fluid and expansive. Zhigeist doesn’t push the duo particularly far from their respective comfort zones, but that’s because the two have proven they can thrive just about anywhere. They are a natural pair and the low stakes atmosphere gives Zhigeist the feeling of an interstellar jam session.

Muldrow does an admirable job of retaining that vibe. Its beats combine the precision of production software and the lush sounds of live instruments without lapsing into the dry majesty that plagues most live hip-hop groups. The basslines and piano notes of “Amnesia” and lead single “Strangeland” are milky-way thick, complemented by hazy synths. In fact, synths and piano ring out on nearly every track, lending dimension to the slamming shaker in the background of “Nefertiti” and the ghostly voice of Muldrow that blares throughout “Already Gone.” “Pros and Cons” begins as a mellow lounge jazz number before a change of pace brings drums, bass and sirens befitting an episode of The Mandalorian. Each beat is its own universe that pops and vibrates in unexpected ways, adding as much to the conversation as Elzhi’s words.

As great as he is technically, another of Elzhi’s greatest gifts is using these techniques to find the most elegant way to say he’s nice. Rapping about rap is blessed with being boring and contrived at worst, but its vocabulary offers endless possibilities. Take this passage from “Strangeland”: “With the pen, I could turn a name into a number / Chain you up and have you escorted through the right entrance / To be put in a mental prison / So why should I sweat your bars, knowing do they come with light sentence?” His schemes are as conceptual as they are rhyme-based – there’s as much emphasis on configurations as on punchlines. They range from deep (“They sought de la dirt when they dug up my past, but dug up these diamonds,” he raps on “Amnesia”) to long and boring (the Real Hip-Hop screed near the end of “King Shit (Say a Word)”) . Still, it’s impressive just to hear them unfold, the words slipping like cards in a deck.