A quick note: I wrote this column yesterday, before Phife Dawg died. At this point, it seems ridiculous to have a column about rap and not have it be about the five-foot assassin with the roughneck business. But I put some thoughts about Phife’s career and legacy in the obituary that I wrote this morning, and right now I’m too raw to write anything else. So onto this week’s column.
One weird byproduct of this music-critic life: We can be so in-touch, sometimes, that we fall out of touch. Groups who we repped for a few years ago start to find their place in the world, and we’ve already moved on, scrambling elsewhere for novelty. Case in point: Flatbush Zombies. I’d come to think of the Brooklyn trio as a distinctly 2012 phenomenon. The group had come out with a fun gimmick: gnarly drug-gobbling thrift-shop punks who constantly reference horror movies. They had a great look and a few good songs and some truly eye-grabbing videos. They revived a few things about ’90s rap that other ’90s rap revivalists weren’t reviving. But they didn’t seem to develop much beyond that. They never evolved their sound or grew their personas or did anything truly new. Their music videos were consistently excellent, but other than that, I more or less stopped paying attention. And the time I stopped, it turns out, was the time the rest of the world started.
When Flatbush Zombies released 3001: A Laced Odyssey, their first-ever official album, a couple of weeks ago, I barely paid attention. But other people did. Various commenters on this site have been wondering when we’ll get around to saying anything about the album. Last week at SXSW, our own Collin Robinson and Chris DeVille caught a raucous Zombies set, noting both the energy of the show itself and the devotion of the fans who came to see it. And on this week’s Billboard chart, 3001 managed a top-10 debut, something I would’ve thought unthinkable for some New York internet-underground rap that, as far as I knew, was the product of a moment that had already passed. This was a dumb assumption on my part, of course. Since I stopped paying attention, Flatbush Zombies have been doing what you’re supposed to do. They’ve been touring hard, honing their live show, making new fans. At the end of 3001, we hear voicemail messages from Zombies fans in far-flung locations like Salt Lake City and Boise, all proclaiming the group’s greatness. And the idea that I would’ve given up on this group before they made a proper album (even if it did take them forever to make that album) reminds me of the kids I knew in high school who quit drinking years before they were able to drink legally, or who quit smoking before they could even buy cigarettes.
So: 3001. It’s good! It’s a lot better than I expected when I dimly noted that there was a new Flatbush Zombies album. The group still has certain limits. They’ve got memorable voices — Meechy Darko, in particular, sounds like he’s been using lava for mouthwash — but they don’t often use them to say memorable things. They have a hard time maintaining momentum over a whole album, and when they try to get mellow or introspective, they mostly just get boring. But this is music made with a sense of fun and energy. It’s steeped in the New York rap of the ’90s, but there’s still a real inventiveness there. If you listen to most bring-New-York-back true-school types, you’d be excused for thinking that New York rap was once dominated by straight-faced, insular, lyrical hardasses like Nas and Cormega. In Flatbush Zombies, we hear another strain of that stuff. We hear some of the messy, silly rah-rah energy of, say, Redman or Busta Rhymes or Keith Murray. They’re warped and rangy and animated. From what I understand, those virtues are most plainly on display in their anarchic live shows, but you can hear it on the album, too.
And listening to the album, you get the sense that these three guys are bent on taking over the world by themselves. They’re part of a crew — the loosely confederated Beast Coast movement — but they don’t rely on that affiliation for buzz or aesthetic pointers or anything else. Instead, they make music entirely by themselves. There are no guest rappers on 3001, and group member Erick Arc Elliott produced the entire album by himself. This is a homespun affair — the product of three people working together, trying out ideas on each other, and thinking about what’s going to be the most fun to bring out onstage. It has a sound and a viewpoint and an identity. It’s spotty at times, but it still plays a lot better as an album than, say, the crew’s four-year-old D.R.U.G.S. mixtape was. It’s a fundamentally idiosyncratic and DIY rap album, and the fact that these guys got an album like that into the Billboard top 10, during a commercial era that isn’t especially friendly to music like that, is a seriously impressive feat. I should’ve been paying more attention.
1. Homeboy Sandman – “Talking (Bleep)”
A novelty song, sure, but a well-executed rap novelty song is pretty much the best thing. This one is built around a single joke that Homeboy Sandman manages to twist a bunch of different ways, the Huffington Post riff being the best. And it’s great to hear Edan back in action, with an airy and goofy beat that plays right into the song’s central concept.
2. Trouble – “Ready (Remix)” (Feat. Young Thug, Young Dolph, & Big Bank Black)
Did Young Thug just rap about his “iced-out penis”? Is that really what I heard? Because I’m sorry, but that’s too good.
3. Boosie Badazz – “Go Away” (Feat. Z-Ro)
The run Boosie is on right now — three albums in three months, all of them compelling and powerful and light on filler — is just ridiculous. But the sheer volume of that material can obscure a remarkable song like this one, on which the two most emotive and unguarded stars of the Southern rap underground contemplate the very real idea of going back to prison.
4. Carnage & Section Boys – “Bimma”
Ever since Drake showed up onstage with the unknown-to-me London crew Section Boyz last month, I’ve been persistently fascinated with this group. They don’t make grime, exactly; it’s slower and more focused and closer to traditional rap than most grime is. But it still has that distinctly London, frantic energy to it. Those hooks are just hypnotic, and a track like this shows that they can link up with an EDM producer and walk away with something that just sounds like them.
5. Sremm Life Crew – “Doggin”
It sure was nice of Rae Sremmurd to gift some of their Mississippi buddies with some of their frantically catchy turnt-up anthems. The Sremm Life Crew mixtape is way better than an extended-crew mixtape should reasonably be.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Phife Dawg will forever have the best Wikipedia photo + caption on the damn site pic.twitter.com/5HgndBDa4l
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) March 23, 2016