A velvety portrait of Birdman peers down through caramel sunglasses on ZillaKami and SosMula in this Young Money, Cash Money–themed conference room. It's a rainy afternoon in Manhattan, City Morgue are in the first days of a grueling press cycle for their new album City Morgue Vol 2: As Good as Dead, and that has summoned them to this Cristal-drenched crucible of hip-hop power. Zilla — with his grill, silver septum piercing, and splotchy Cramps shirt — is telling me about all the spin-kicks he did in the pit during the duo's recent summer tour with hardcore rabble-rousers Turnstile and Trash Talk. It's the first moment the typically aloof star lights up during our interview; he can't help but beam when he remembers abandoning his celebrity post to be a punk on a Saturday night.
"Everyone in the pit is always like, 'Oh, Zilla's here!'" he says with a smile. "It makes the pit go way harder than it would've."
These are the moments where the vertigo hits you. Yes, City Morgue are signed to Hikari Ultra in partnership with Republic Records, which means that they're record-label cousins with Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Post Malone. But this duo earned their riches through an all-out psychic assault; troubling, questionably legal YouTube clips that saw SosMula and ZillaKami pack semiautomatic weaponry, crush pills with 40 bottles, and carve pentagrams into giant cheese pizzas, all while delivering a bizarro, subterranean blend of pugnacious East Coast hip-hop and basement nu-metal. Those videos went effortlessly viral, which established the band as both a moralist nightmare and catnip role-models for fractious youth all over the world. One year after their debut album, 2018's City Morgue Vol 1: Hell or High Water, and numerous sold-out merch capsules later (their latest is a collaboration with A$AP Bari's VLONE, available for 72 hours only), City Morgue are truly famous. But in The House That Birdman Built, they still look like freshly plucked scene kids with four chords and a sneer.
In practice, that means they're a tough interview. Sos, typically the more garrulous of the pair, is oppressively stormy — eyes cast downwards, the blood-red cross tattooed on the bullseye of his forehead burning a hole in the table in front of him. Next to him is Zilla, who's spinning around in circles on a swivel chair, eyes on the ceiling, as I settle into my questions. Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten operated under the guiding principle that the press was easily clowned, and while City Morgue might not be cursing me out like Bill Grundy, you do get the sense that one wrong turn will detour into a very unpleasant experience for both of us.
Here are some things I am able to learn: One of the first major purchases Zilla made after getting rich was a new motorcycle, which he rides without a license, finally cashing in on the many, many times he's worn Harley-Davidson gear onstage and on-set. City Morgue sell a VIP "meet and greet" package for their fans on tour, which essentially amounts to the band roasting those who made the purchase backstage. Zilla says he was recently in the studio with members of Long Island hardcore veterans Backtrack. What were they working on? "Stuff," he tells me, with a coyness that I promise was less frustrating than it reads. He adds that as an Islip native, he is of the same rock & roll brotherhood as anyone who shares his heritage. (In fact, Zilla says that City Morgue finds it easier to collaborate with musicians outside of hip-hop. Take that for what you will.) As for the eyebrow-raising Instagram story the band posted a few months ago that hinted at a forthcoming partnership with the famously reclusive video game studio Rockstar Games? No dice there. On that front, at least, City Morgue respects the NDA.
In fact, the most revelatory thing about City Morgue in 2019 is that they've become a little self-reflexive about their music. City Morgue Vol 1 is a comic blunderbuss — sepulchral nightmare-rap equipped with track titles like "Arson," "Caligula" and "Gravehop187." Together, SosMula and ZillaKami created a charred, battle-torn New York City, populated exclusively by gutter creatures and road warriors, that was near-memeable in its ghoulish excess. This uncompromising commitment to the bit, says Zilla, was the record's one weakness.
"The only problem with Vol 1 was that you can't listen to it at every single moment of the day," he explains. "You can't be sad and listen to it, unless you're the sort of person who thrives on anger. … [Now] we have something for when you're laying down, when you're washing dishes, or when you're lifting weights."
And so, As Good as Dead is an attempt to be City Morgue's first emotionally complex artistic statement. Listen to "THE GIVE UP," a sepia-tinged meditation on suicide, depression and anxiety on a cloud of flannel-bound guitar. "MINIMIZYA" is built around this reflective Zilla hook: "They make you die 'cause you hide what you feel inside/You cannot cry so you're highs are your lowest times." Of course a few minutes later, on a song called "C4," Zilla will rap: "Fucking on your bitch, I've got blood all on my cock" — returning the band to the outrage orbit that originally enshrined their legacy.
Those bad politics aside, it is interesting to watch how a world-weariness has come for one of the most giddily volatile acts on earth. It brings to mind the other insurrectionist, genre-twisting rappers that came before them. Tyler, The Creator eventually hammered his claustrophobic anger into a functional doctrine for living. The Insane Clown Posse revealed that the Joker Cards were about deference to God the whole time, and Gucci Mane has transformed from a debauched nihilist into a salt-of-the-earth Hustle Guy on Twitter. SosMula says the inspiration for City Morgue's newfound vulnerability is a result of "existential crises," though Zilla puts it more directly: "When you sit in your house, and you say, 'Why am I alive?' The real shit you think [about.]"
He just turned 20 in September. You'd think that someone as young and successful as him would afford a few more seasons of exemption before feeling the need to connect the dots. But then again, Zilla already has his theories for What It All Means.
"You're alive to make a memory and make an explosion," he concludes. "I've not made a big enough explosion yet."