The undead rise from the grave of mixtapes to finally enter the realm of debut albums
Rap groups (clans, gangs – whatever you want to call them) look to be less and less prevalent these days, a seemingly dying breed of hip-hop act that once ruled the airwaves. When once the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan could reign supreme, now the game seems to be dominated by individuals in their pursuit of a ‘lone wolf’-type career. Except one group, perhaps. Flatbush Zombies, residents of New York and rap trio that have gained a lot of attention over the past few years through their singular and collaborative mixtapes, are this such act. They’re unique drug-fueled style and air of sonic madness have helped them gain a great deal of underground attention, but can this carry over into the mainstream with their first full-length LP?
With only two mixtapes under their belt, you wouldn’t be mad in thinking Flatbush Zombies were being a little hasty with the release of their first LP ‘3001: A Laced Odyssey‘, a surprise to many after the recent announcement in January. But the New York natives have never really been known to adhere to conformity, consistently placing themselves on a pedestal of ‘difference‘ and ‘superiority’ to most other hip-hop acts out there. Their first demo entitled ‘D.R.U.G.S‘ wasn’t anything spectacular, but it did establish them as a name in the business, enough so that when their second mixtape ‘BetterOffDEAD’ was released, it got people listening. It was met with critical acclaim, their dark, twisted comments of the world the zombies envisaged through their druggy perception was coupled with some stand out production. After another successful collaborative project with The Underachievers, the Flatbush trio looked set to be substantial figures in the eyes of hip-hop heads everywhere.
This message of offbeat-ness they constantly carry certainly continues going into this record, as the opening track ‘Odyssey‘ features an admittedly cheesy (but thankfully short) monologue, the narrator painting the group as separate entity from their surrounding “haters” that inhabit the earth. It’s an especially tight rope to walk; trying to remain true to your solitary sound that supplied your come-up, while also trying to break into the mainstream with a cohesive project that’ll surpass the ears of your average underground fan. Thankfully then the previously-mentioned opener manages to keep its balance for the length of the run time, blending string arpeggios with heavy drum kicks to create a maniacal atmosphere that FBZ fans would’ve become accompanied to. The rapping doesn’t fail here either, with Zombie Juice opening the first verse, bringing his signature energy and flair to the track. Following this is the Erick ‘The Architect’ Elliot, who many would say has the least personality of the trio when it comes to rapping (something that I can sympathise with when you’re working with two of the craziest guys in the game today), but still manages to hold his own through his flow and delivery. Lastly of course we then get a verse from Meechy Darko, arguably one of the most recognizable voices in hip-hop today with his deep inflection switching up more than British weather. He delivers the most noteworthy line of the track, claiming he’s “spitting shit that make Jesus question religion“, and I don’t doubt him.
It’s a start that sets up the zombies debut LP to be one that could take the 2016 hip-hop game by storm, exhibiting both the consistent delivery of all 3 MC’s plus the production prowess of Erick himself (who, much like their mixtapes, composes the beats in their entirety). There’s no doubt the group have bags of talent, and we’ve seen this potential shine through before, so as the album continues you’re met by stellar beats matched by rapping of the same level. The next 3 tracks; ‘Bounce‘ (previously reviewed), ‘R.I.P.C.D‘ and ‘A Spike Lee Joint‘ keep a steady level of quality that don’t hold back in showing exactly what Flatbush Zombies are about. ‘A Spike Lee Joint‘ in particular uses an ethereal cloud-rap-inspired melody made up of layered vocals on top of a hard-hitting boom bap bassline, possessing this wonderful mix of a relaxed jazz-rap tune and a gangsta cut from the 90’s. Like the previously mentioned tracks it’s nice and lengthy, allowing two of the three MC’s to spit game over it, Juice especially coming through with the usual snarky comments:”NYPD on my dick since I’ve been fornicating, investigation, don’t got no patience, all this bread I’m making“. It’s simply bliss to hear this from these guys, the three of them just making the whole process seem effortless.
I mentioned earlier that the album walks on a tight rope, and as you could probably guess the set up for that was the point that it’s easy to slip up while making your way across it. After the aforementioned joint, the album takes this obscure dip into the profound with the track ‘Fly Away‘, a low-key piano instrumental backed by some sub-bass with Meechy Darko crooning over it. Through groans and overly-exaggerated notes, he seems to contemplate his existence and even questions the possibility of suicide. I suppose it may represent some of the negative effects doing psychedelic drugs can have on a person, but it really doesn’t work in favour of the album and seems out of place. It gets even more abstract with the following track ‘Ascension‘, which has an admittedly bland instrumental, the generic melody not made any better by the bass-heavy percussion. Again Meechy goes solo and delivers a pretty solid verse, but its made redundant by the chant-like hook; “I have ascended, I’m trying to be better than God, what the fuck am I saying? I ain’t even enter my prime“. The LP really takes a nose-dive in quality here and, if I had to be honest, fails to really get back to the enjoy-ability of the first 4 tracks from here on out.
Erick ‘The Architect’ Elliot is a talented producer, there’s not doubt about that. He’s showed this through his work on their past mixtapes, turning the most unorthodox samples into underground hip-hop hits. Yet here it feels like the project is lacking in any really colourful and memorable instrumentals in the latter two thirds. ‘This Is It‘ and ‘New Phone, Who Dis?‘ seem very trap-inspired, both incorporating sharp snares and rattling hi-hats. They’re seemingly dependent on the three MC’s to carry them into the halls of anything memorable, and it doesn’t really pay off. The first 4 tracks had the flair and personality that Flatbush Zombies have been come to represent (hell, they did say they’re different), but it doesn’t continue. Don’t get it twisted, the lyricism here is creative and paints a vivid picture, with the more lively ‘Trade-Off’ supplying drug-centered lyrics like “One puff of that fluffy stuff, shit hit me like a sucker punch, side effects include mass paranoia plus the cotton mouth” and “Rosemary’s baby the hand I rock my cradle to the grave, I had six exorcisms this year alone and I feel the same“. It ultimately left me wanting, hearing these kinds of bars and longing for them to be laid down on a more interesting beat.
Thankfully the final track of the LP (an almost 13 minute piece) is a more than decent one. ‘Your Favorite Rap Song‘ may not take that actual title straight away, but it certainly challenges to be your favorite on the album with its dark, murky piano riff perfectly mixed with a boom bap beat that sounds like it was pulled straight out of a cypher in the middle of Harlem. Though the second half of the track is just recorded messages from complimenting fans over the same beat, the first half is more than enough to satisfy, with three equally superb verses from each member. Meechy takes the cake with his final verse however, with one of the hardest deliveries you’ll hear through bars like “Someone once told me suffering would lead to the discovery of something deep, Inner Peace, Mind, Body, Soul; Holy Trinity“. It almost saves the album. Almost.
The debut album from the Flatbush Zombies is in one way a disappointment, in another a triumph. When the 3 of them really get a hold of what they want to convey; whether that be a psychedelic trip through their own minds or a social commentary on what they see around them, it’s a joy to listen to. With the record only being 12 tracks long however, it spends too much of its run time wallowing in its drug-fueled self-obsession, falling into a generic, bland sound when it should be focused on doing what the Flatbush have come to be loved for; being different. A solid start to their (hopefully) long, commercial road ahead, but one not without its setbacks.
Highlights: Bounce, A Spike Lee Joint, Trade-Off, Your Favorite Rap Song