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Flatbush Zombies - Vacation in Hell (Album Review)

Tuesday, 17 April 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Photo: Ben Kaye

When the self-described 'beast coast' movement emerged out of New York in the early 2010s, Joey Bada$$ and his mammoth crew Pro Era received the bulk of critical attention. The group, much like fellow Brooklynites the Underachievers, won acclaim for their true school ethos, playful sound and reverence for their hip-hop heroes.

On reflection, it's a shame affiliated trio Flatbush Zombies didn't receive the same recognition – their work over the past half-decade suggests they're the one act who have been consistently forward thinking in their approach. While their contemporaries reverted to dusty loops or jumped on the latest trap trends, they were aggressively spitting off-kilter LSD-inspired verses over spaced-out psychedelic production.

Admittedly, their official debut '3001: A Laced Odyssey' was a slight disappointment, adopting a watered down mainstream approach after their atmospheric and reverb-heavy mixtapes.

But the promo singles for ‘Vacation in Hell’ signalled a return to what listeners had come to love from the trio: horrorcore-inspired bars delivered emphatically over vivid samples.

They come hurtling out the gates on the eerie and dramatic opener Hell-O. Most notably, Meechy Darko's gravelly voice and supercharged flows are the perfect foil for the track's frantic synth loop. He appears to set the tone for the whole record when he calls out mumble rap and contrasts it with the group's “skully low rumble rap”.

Jabs like this aren't just throwaways – all three Zombies rap with a clarity and conviction they regard as a necessity for good hip hop, and it's undeniably one of their greatest strengths. But they're also a group obsessed with counterpoint. As Meech put it pre-release: “There has to be a way to show duality in life”.

Much of 'Vacation in Hell' is concerned with representing this: a grounded track like Chunky, which references racism and systemic oppression, feels like the polar opposite of a celebratory jam such as Big Shrimp, which unironically features lines like “Roll Gelato in pronto then dickmatize a bitch”. While the range of styles on show is welcome after the more one-note '3001', you can't help but think they try to do a bit much.

For one thing, 'Vacation in Hell' runs to 19 tracks and nearly 77 minutes in total. The assumption that listeners wouldn't stick with one aesthetic for that long is reasonable – even their hour-long signature tape 'Better Off Dead' occasionally dispensed with the drug-addled nihilism for the odd spliff break. Nevertheless, when you're throwing awful sex skit-style tracks like Reel Girls in, you can't help but consider that cutting down a bit could have improved the end product.

Flatbush Zombies rap their asses off – again – and for the most part it makes for engaging listening. The beats, handled mostly by member Erick Arc Elliott, are tasteful and creative. And whereas they previously had a propensity to shoehorn in provocative themes needlessly, the record flows well, feels natural and isn't afraid to be introspective. Whatever the title suggests, though, this record isn't thematically consistent. It's more colourful than its predecessor, but 'Vacation in Hell' gets a bit carried away on the journey there.

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