When applied to hip hop, the terms "introspective" and "experimental" are usually euphemisms for pretentious and ponderous nonsense. But Bay Area duo Zion-I (MC Zion and producer Amp) effortlessly delves into themes of spirituality and politics with an earnestness that is both jarring and immediately appealing. Zion's lyrics are confessional without being needlessly complex, and display an emotional fragility and compassion that are rare in hip hop. And whether dipping into bhangra waters on "Mysterious Wayz" or accompanying red-hot songstress Goapele on the ethereal "Boom Bip," Amp"s productions are among the most ambitious in underground hip hop. Expect a live show that's as unique as it is upbeat when Zion-I rocks the Independent on Friday, June 4; call 771-1421 or go to www.theindependentsf.com.
-- Sam Chennault
Early-"90s Cypress Hill classics like Black Sunday and Cypress Hill not only provided the soundtrack for a million bong hits, but also offered a sonic template for everyone from the RZA and Dr. Dre to trip-hoppers Massive Attack and DJ Krush. After spending the latter half of the '90s meandering through various solo projects, the members of CH return with a new album, Till Death Do Us Part, and a surprisingly ineffective first single, "What's Your Number?," that samples the Clash"s "Guns of Brixton" and features Tim Armstrong of Rancid. Nevertheless, Cypress Hill -- which was the first Latino rap act to ever crack the Top 40 -- maintains a raw live energy that hasn't been blunted by time or copious marijuana consumption. The group plays the Fillmore on Sunday, June 6; call 346-6000 or go to www.thefillmore.com.
-- Sam Chennault