Wednesday, March 16, 2016

album review: '3001: a laced odyssey' by flatbush zombies

I don't tend to cover many mixtapes, if I do at all.

And believe it or not, I actually have my reasons. I do recognize that some artists - especially in hip-hop - will release some great work on mixtapes, and that if you're not on top of the mixtape scene, you can fall behind on who has buzz, especially in the Internet age. Now that's not saying I don't occasionally listen to mixtapes that get sent my way, but if I covered every tape that gets dropped or sent to me, I wouldn't be covering any other genres besides hip-hop. And let's be brutally honest: while you can argue that there are a few artists who defined or redefined their best work on tapes, the majority use them as a cheap stopgap to drive buzz in an industry where hype is more fleeting than ever before. That's why I have a lot of respect for artists who might drop less records and overall projects, but the ratio of quality tracks to filler or garbage is more consistent.

But what this has meant is that while I've heard about Flatbush Zombies, a New York hip-hop trio out of Brooklyn affiliated with The Underachievers and Pro Era, known for a kooky style of flow and delivery that careens through smoky production with bars that manage to stick more than I expected, I hadn't really explored many of their projects in detail beyond a few singles. And while they had a few mixtapes and that collaboration EP with The Underachievers, 2015 had been a very quiet year for the Flatbush Zombies, which made the announcement about this record probably more of a surprise than it should have been, at least for me. But I figured now was as good of a time as any to dig in, so what did I get? I the only one who thinks that this record should be better than it is? And believe me, after giving this record a lot of listens, I've come to the conclusion that this record is not bad in the slightest... but it's not really for me. Maybe if you're more engrossed by the personalities and are smoking enough to get sucked into the atmosphere and detail, but for me I kept relistening to find the details to really send this record over the top, and outside of a few bright moments they didn't really materialize. The easiest comparison for me is The Underachievers, but where Flatbush Zombies have more immediacy and potent personality, it's not backed up with as much hard wordplay, bars, and production to make it stick with me long term. Definitely good, but I can't really call it great, even though, again, I totally get this record's appeal.

And part of this comes from our trio of frontmen, because all three of them have the personality and dexterity with cartoonish voices and flows to be compelling right out of the gates, and they all can spit impressively well. Hell, when they play to that stage presence on tracks like the opener 'The Odyssey' or 'Bounce' or 'Trade-Off' or the first half of 'Your Favorite Rap Song' or especially 'Ascension', the tracks can hit with punch behind them and will probably kill on the festival circuit. Of the MCs, Meechy Darko has the most immediate presence with his more guttural raspy tones that intentionally remind you of a cross between Busta Rhymes and ODB, but what caught me off-guard was how strong Zombie Juice came to the microphone, who seems to be set on compensating for his higher pitch with a really expressive delivery and some great change-ups on his flow. If there's one MC that I was expecting more from it'd be Erick The Architect, given his slightly more contemplative flow and wordplay, but it's not like he skirts far from what you'd expect from Flatbush Zombies, with the exception of Meechy's hyperbolic and bloody fantasies.

Yeah, might as well get to content here, and the area where my opinion is bound to be the most contentious. And look, as I said a lot of this material probably isn't for me: I don't do drugs, I don't engage in the sort of debauchery these guys describe, and last time I checked I don't kill people. And I get the style of what Flatbush Zombies do - it's rooted in a lot of the hyperbolic, zonked-out drug hyperbole and violence you'd expect from such a contradictory group. Hell, the closest this album gets to social commentary is how certain people turn to drugs in order to escape from the hell of the struggle, only to see themselves get dragged into something far darker if they can't control it. And sure, there is some graphic and vivid imagery here, but quickly you realize that this album starts to repeat itself in terms of content, because it's not like there's any real storytelling here. You get independent label bragging thrashing rappers who are ripping off their druggy styles and flows and not doing it well - which is entirely true - some pretty creative and borderline grotesque sex, in Meechy's case graphic violence, and all through it a lot of drugs. And while you get fragments of melancholy about how Flatbush Zombies reflect on a world that's leaving them behind, I found myself wishing for the distinctive balance that The Underachievers brought to their last album that was able to balance against the darkness. But then again, when you have songs like 'Ascension' where Meechy Darko seems entirely aware that he's damned and is just rolling with it, you have to wonder if such a balance was even possible... one of the reasons why 'Trade-Off's 'Rest In Peace to Trayvon' feels out-of-place, especially followed by verses referencing Rosemary's Baby and killing cops. And sure, I get tracks like 'This Is It' where they try to put a message together on charting your own path and not trading artistic integrity for fame that compromises who you are, but that doesn't really align with taking potentially hazardous amounts of psychedelic drugs, which they themselves admit is changing who they are!

But you know, maybe I'm just overthinking this - it's clearly not intended to be that deep, it's intended most to bang at the festivals or to just get stoned. If the production is killer, it won't matter, right? Well, here's the thing: it's not that the instrumentation or production is bad... but I can't help but feel it should hit me a lot harder than it does. From what I've heard of Flatbush Zombies in the past they've got a solid grasp of melody and that does come through here: the strings and piano that play off some great drums on 'The Odyssey' or 'Good Grief', the sparse and dreary guitar lines on 'Bounce' or 'R.I.P.C.D.' or 'Trade Off', the warping synth against the hollow keys on 'Ascension', or the deeper warble on 'Your Favourite Rap Song'. And while this forms a good foundation, these melodies feel oddly lacking in production support these songs would need to have a killer hook or a distinctive vibe. There are some subtleties I appreciate in terms of instrumental shifts - I really dug the outro of 'Ascension' and the hints of horns on 'A Spike Lee Joint' that led to a really chill outro, or the crack of thunder on 'Your Favourite Rap Song' or the sirens echoing through 'R.I.P.C.D.' - but one of the elements that made the Flatbush Zombies jump out was production that went harder than this or could at least match the vocal personalities and bars in weirdness. But okay, say they weren't going for that either but instead more of a stoned out, meandering vibe... and even then, I'd say it's a little hit-and-miss, especially with the two half-sung interludes on 'Fly Away' and 'Smoke Break'. There is some atmosphere, but it feels thin and lacking in the same lush texture to really drag you under. And granted, this is where I really can't say if you're high as hell whether it'll still work... but even with that, I feel this record defaults to sparse piano and bassy textures more than it should - still good, but lacking that additional eccentricity to push them over the top, which I know the Flatbush Zombies have.

So with 3001: A Laced Odyssey... take this review with a grain of salt from a guy who doesn't smoke or do drugs and feels that you really shouldn't need them if the music is good enough. And yeah, this is good, but in terms of content and production really sticking the landing, I won't say it's great. I will say that this trio has a very strong baseline of quality in terms of flow and personality and some good melodies, which means it's getting a very light 7/10, but even that feels a little generous given how much more they could have done for hooks and production and structuring a more lyrically compelling release. That said, if getting blazed is your thing, you'll probably dig this a fair bit more, so if you're into weed rap that blows a fair chunk of the competition out of the water, check this out, it's pretty solid.

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