I DON’T SMOKE. That simple, three word sentence just took out three quarters of the content I could possibly enjoy on Flatbush Zombies’ debut album, 3001: A Laced Odyssey. But being a music reviewer and a self-described hip-hop connoisseur, I find enjoyment elsewhere in the large field of stoner rap. Ever since the aptly named D.R.U.G.S., I’ve found Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice, and Erick Arc Elliott invaluably exciting. With their mannerisms and styles, they’ve essentially turned themselves into characters of hip-hop’s drug scene, rather than rappers droning on about weed culture. Juice flashes with tantalizing verses, Meechy gravely crawls along, and Erick fills the production like a catacomb. It’s with this knowledge that 3001 becomes increasingly disappointing, and it doesn’t take long for that to set in. From the get-go, the LP follows a script of the most trivial order. “In a world full of haters…” a narrator’s voice echoes, repeating a tired cliché without any hint of sarcasm. Throw in the fact that this is meant to be played alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—at best a laughable correlation when tested—and the group known for testing the limits of stoner rap seem to have been caught up in the weed smoke. Thankfully, the music is fairly good.
While D.R.U.G.S. could be seen as a flash in the pan of hardcore cloud rap at its pinnacle, with your Live. Love. ASAP’s and Habits & Contradictions’ springing up at around the same time, their follow-up, Better Off Dead, showed real potential. It wasn’t just a fluke, with each facet of the group noticeably improved, even if it didn’t have the undeniably catchiness of tracks like “S.C.O.S.A.” or “Thug Waffle”. The mixtape was well managed, had a haunting allure slithering underneath, and featured some of the best cloud rap production known to the post 2010’s era. Much of that is featured prominently on 3001, if to a slighter degree. There’s no regression, just seven less songs to work with, and thus less time to impress. As a whole, I appreciate the move. It shows that Flatbush understands the difference between album and mixtape, an important distinction to make when lesser artists are consistently blurring the lines. There’s a cohesion to be felt here, a neat progression throughout the LP. And while the second half does stack up to what came before, it isn’t because of their inability to edit. There’s a perfect mix of beat switches and some conceptual carryover (“Fly Away” to “Ascension” to “Smoke Break” is excellent) to warrant the labelling of album.
As far as emceeing goes, the three’s distinct styles and personalities shine, but their content does not. There’s enough variety in flows to maintain interest throughout: Juice is the eccentric while disproving naysayers; Meechy is the devil in the ghetto; and Erick is the mediator between the two. They work well together, playing off each other’s strengths with ease, but the repetitive thematic material makes many songs close to pointless. No matter what people, and the Zombies themselves, say, you can get addicted to weed. Not the drug itself, but the culture, and this album is a perfect indication of that. Good luck getting through a minute of 3001 without hearing some drug-related banter. It’s everywhere. The detrimental, six-plus minutes of fan gushing that closes the album only adds to the droning nature, where countless stoners celebrate the group’s ability to “open our minds,” despite, lyrically, contributing nothing of the sort. You’ll find at least half a dozen groaners in these final minutes, and while the original premise is fine, the execution goes on for far too long and is far too annoying. 13 minutes of legitimate rapping similar to the first half of “Your Favorite Rap Song” would’ve been much more welcome.
With little competition, the best part of 3001, as usual with Flatbush, is the production. Eric Arc Elliott continues his climb in terms of high-quality beatsmithing that evokes equal amounts of chill and vibrant production techniques, frequently bouncing between both. There’s absolute bangers, like “Ascension”, the best track here, that takes a crystal clear trap beat and morphs it using elastic hi-hats and bass slaps, all while engulfed in atmospheric tension. Then there’s the opposite found in “A Spike Lee Joint” and “Smoke Break”, both using a room filled with haze to nullify anything that isn’t a looming bass or cascading background vocal. Even when Elliott resorts to more typical Zombies material, like “Bounce” or “New Phone, Who Dis?”, he fills the soundscape with everything you’d ever want from cloud rap: Creaky keyboards, rhythmic percussion, and constant, but subtle, beat switches and transitions that keep a similar concept intriguing throughout. Hell, Elliott even introduces a saxophone on “A Spike Lee Joint” midway that doesn’t offend or grab the spotlight, but fits the production beautifully and sincerely. The overall sound presents a quality unmatched by anything else in the genre, and is the saving grace to an album that otherwise settles for mediocrity.
It’s hard to separate the talents of the Flatbush Zombies from the content they want to get through to you. Seeing three inarguable talents wallow in pseudo-intellectual drug rap is disappointing. There are many times here, and even in the build-up to the album, like throwaway track “Blacktivist”, where serious topics are flooded by nonsequiturs. That song, “R.I.P.C.D.”, and “A Spike Lee Joint” all seem to want to spark discussion in the choruses but fail to leave any impression in the verses. On “R.I.P.C.D.”, it’s with a jolt that the hook arrives, as you sit wondering—wait, this is what the song is about? You can’t help but think of the trio as a wasted opportunity, but in the same breath you realize—well hey, they’re still really good. The Architect is making a name for himself as a serious candidate for best new producer, while Juice, consistently seen as the lesser of the group, proves himself worthy on 3001, in small part thanks to Meechy’s regrettable reliance on his voice. So while the LP litters its landscape with unoriginal, and sometimes embarrassing, ideas, the execution of these limitations boosts its successes to redeemable levels. B MINUS
Read more of Brian’s writing at his blog, Dozens of Donuts.