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New York City has had a near-constant referendum on the state of the city’s hip-hop scene for over a decade now. From artists to radio personalities to fans, the birthplace of hip-hop still isn’t sure if it’s having an identity crisis or a mere sonic evolution. There’s a timeless tug of war ongoing with fans who champion artists like Cardi B, A$AP Rocky and Nicki Minaj as the new wave, and others who criticize those artists as “too Atlanta (or Houston)” and uphold the golden era’s rap stalwarts as the standard.
The Flatbush Zombies are eight projects deep and haven’t yet released a project that’s seemed preoccupied with pleasing either extreme of that schism. Perhaps that’s because they realized early that they “hate anything that sounds like anybody else’s music,” as group producer Erick The Architect told DJ Booth. While fans fixate on what New York is “supposed to sound like,” the Flatbush, Brooklyn-based trio has been focused on what they want to sound like. They’re gradually developing a cult following and a strong catalog — which just received a masterful addition.
The 19-song tracklist for their Vacation In Hell album could seem daunting, especially after Migos, threw down a gauntlet onto the streaming services with the 24-track Culture 2. Whereas Migos and other artists are faltering though with bloated, 808-dominated projects that eventually drag a listener down into trap purgatory, this Vacation In Hell is full of varying sonic approaches — and it’s all flames.
The album’s dynamism can primarily be credited to Elliott, the underrated soundscapist who gives the group an in-house production virtuoso. He produced 15 of the album’s 19 track and probably had a hand in its expert sequencing. The album is seemingly divided into three acts, going from uptempo to slower paced burners like “Reel Girls,” into more soulful production like the earnest A$AP Yams tribute “YouAreMySunshine.”
Intro track “HELL-O” kicks down the door with a slasher-film-channeling synth loop and group rabble-rouser Meechy Darko already on 10, rhyming, “man f*ck that mumble rap / It’s that skully low rumble rap.” The sinister, uptempo tracks define the album’s outset, specifically standouts like the Joey Bada$$ – featured “Vacation” and “Headstone,” where Meechy cleverly references a 50 Cent line while channeling Tupac’s bassy-delivery.
“Headstone” in particular showcases the Zombies’ impressive three-man weave. Meechy’s energetic exhortations are complimented by Elliott’s cerebral verses. Zombie Juice represents a bit of both, rhyming with a combination of fury and precision. Lyrical dexterity is their primary weapon as MCs, and within those flows are a range of gems.
They’re just as adept at nihilistic fervor as they are throwing out poetic lines like “we are well-anointed with the knowledge of the slaves” on the incendiary “Best American,” where they lament the “whole planet under seize,” especially the Flatbush hoods they grew from.
But Vacation In Hell isn’t all fire and brimstone. “U&I” is an intimate reflection on their inner demons, where Meechy digs deep into an autobiographical verse where he reflects on his hardships and shows love to his Flatbush Zombies brothers. Juice also notes, “Yeah, I’m patiently waiting / But I don’t really give a fuck if we ain’t in your rotation / I put the heart up on this bitch and can’t nobody take it.”
They may not care for “rotation,” but the sultry “The Goddess” can win them just that. Anchored by Seattle upstart Dave B’s melodic chorus, the guys get romantic without veering into crass misogyny. It’s one of the primary tracks that showcase their capability to appeal to listeners beyond the trap-ideating bangers that they do so well. It feels like tracks 1-9, or 10-19 could be two different projects, with different sonic moods and lyrical leanings dominating both stretches.
Vacation In Hell is the rare 19-track project that could actually work as a double album. Whether the crew is dropping debaucherous bars over baleful bangers, going bar for bar with Jadakiss about wack rappers (on “Facts”), or getting introspective, they excel. They’ve delivered a master class in how to fuse new sonics with classic hip-hop sensibilities, making Vacation In Hell more like an 808 paradise.
Vacation In Hell is out now via Glorious Dead Recordings. Get it here.