Flatbush Zombies – BetterOffDEAD

Say what you will about Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future, but their impact on modern hip-hop culture is impossible to ignore. Take Flatbush Zombies: carving their way into the rap landscape toting equal obsessions with drugs, horror movies and vocal modulation (that is, squealing and growling), whenever they aren’t busily rolling joints or tearing out throats on track with their Method Man fang-grills, they’re engaged in the more personal, street-level activities of decrying the evils of government and wrestling their own post-adolescent mental demons. It’s a shift that’s gradually been occurring amongst young African American artists – a search on this year’s Flatbush riots proves educational here – so it comes as no surprise that in light of America’s recent racial tragedies, the disenfranchised and depressed youth are rightfully enraged; and so their recordings must reflect an alchemy of that violence into music. Of course, this is nothing new: Wu-Tang knew what was going on, we can go farther back to N.W.A., and obviously African American discontent can be traced much further, musically, than that as well. The shift occurring now, though, that melding of skate and young black culture in America (that OF typifies), is something of a new thing. The 90’s gave us our mainstream ultra-violence fix in the form of Eminem and Gravediggaz (obvious touchstones for ‘Zombies); 2013 seems intent to bring us Hip-Hop’s Bad Brains.

It’s easy to see, too. There’s a major shift occurring in underground hip-hop just now: look to Tyler sure, but look also to Danny Brown depicting Detroit’s devastation over the last decade with his drug-fueled yelp. Look at the near-wordless primal scream stuff going on with Death Grips. Hell, look to Kanye West, mainstream as hell and fanning his Throbbing Gristle collection with white-noise screams. Hip-Hop. I owe the essay on why I find this stuff so fascinating another time (and it explains why I’ve held off reviewing rock of late), but it’s that same fascination that draws me to Flatbush Zombies, especially on the advent of their second release, BetterOffDEAD.

Flatbush are an exciting anomaly,and so the chances of them ever cracking mainstream are incredibly slim. This is obviously to their benefit …Though maybe it’s bad luck to say that the day after Slim Shady somehow releases another album. Regardless, my first exposure to these maniacs came with their fantastic Pitchfork Selector, whose negligence had me naming them incorrectly to months (thanks). They’ve been hard at work touring with Joey Bada$$’ Beast Coast crew ever since, and giving away 100% of their output via Datpiff. That initial exposure blew me away: Meechy Darko’s gravel-blender delivery and wild-eyed madness had me hooked, Zombie Juice squeals like a cartoon character and freestyles like a tornado, and Arc meanders somewhere in between with his more introspective flow (when he deigns to speak). Nothing about that chemistry has changed since, and nothing changed for their freebie debut D.R.U.G.S., either (Death and Reincarnation Under God’s Supervision, somehow). BetterOffDEAD stays the course for the most part, but sees the trio laser-focusing their presentation. Frankly, they’re just better at it, in every sense. It takes a certain stomach to listen to Flatbush Zombies at all, and a certain drug appetite to really empathize with them (which I thankfully don’t share). So while their presentation might not be unprecedented in the field, it’s tough to find an exact contemporary to their work, even now.

BetterOffDEAD is the sequel to D.R.U.G.S. in every logical sense: the boys are older, colder, weirder, and they’ve dropped any pretense of typical gangster pastiche. From the get-go they’re feeding on brains, tearing apart tongues… and ripping into popular misappropriation of black culture. Darko’s first words on intro “Amerikkkan Pie” read “I am redesigning the mind of the masses/That fear a black man with tattoos and bandanas/but when a white man wear tattoos and bandanas/and joins a bike gang it’s all cool with the balance”. These are the politics we’re referring to when we say Flatbush, Brooklyn, and it’s a fantastic strain of millennial rap-punk that runs strong throughout BetterOffDEAD. Not that their success would even demand lyrical substance, really; it’s a challenge to describe Flatbush Zombies’ vocal tics without resorting to worn metaphor or fumbling similes all over the place. The boys would stand out in their strange field regardless; let’s see if you can guess why:

See what I mean? Who sounds like that?! Well, DMX for one, sort of. The trick-or-treater trio from Nightmare Before Christmas, for two, and that’s a prescient example. Flatbush would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with the label horrorcore (who is, ICP?) but there it is, in each and every track. Ultra-violence, mental devastation, moral and physical degradation. Narcotics! They love it, they thrive in it. And they have to – Flatbush Zombies are anything if not massive drug enthusiasts. Their beat production reflects this, too (and that’s Erick ‘Arc’ Elliot’s job, almost entirely) – it’s a hazy mix of thudding bangers and ethereal, horror-movie sampling introspective jams. There are pianos here, Gorillaz samples, Kanye nods, full strings and a full track or two full of homages. Look at “Regular and Complex (GNB)”, a favourite of mine that manages to elicit memories of ATLiens while lyrically tapping bubbling crack rock and suicide. When they reminisce, which is rare, it’s Arc claiming “the first time I did drugs it was makin’ the beats” – and certainly it has to have been every time since as well. He’s consistent too, and so just when you get as comfortable as BetterOffDEAD lets you, suffocatingly dark as it is, it’ll turn around and give you something like “Bliss”, their anarchy lovesong featuring the word “fuck” one hundred and thirty-three times.

The boys are blessed with incredibly bizarre delivery and an obsession with horror imagery and drugs, absolutely. What you’ll also find, perched alongside the rage and the politics and the posturing, is looming, uncomfortable sexism. These boys are as disenfranchised as they come, and their rebellion is an addiction to narcotics: here that word means drugs, violence and pussy. Pussy, specifically, becomes a focal point and a valid criticism of Zombies: there are no women here. There is plenty of pussy, the object, the commodity, apparently the drug. Meechy ‘garburator-flow’ Darko is likely the greatest offender here, if barely, but that’s also his job – whenever he isn’t shocking you he’s… crouched behind something, waiting to get you on the next track, likely. Women aren’t ignored; they’re non-existent. It’s a question of whether pussy even involves women – and while there’s certainly a ton of sex going on, those verses tend to wander by like distasteful filler, something of a necessary nod to the fact that, yes, Flatbush can have sex. Oh good. A very curious counterexample does arise on “222” though, by far the most shocking moment on an album packed with drugs and crime of every describable variety. “222” features Bridget Perez on the album’s only soft edge, crooning the chorus in between Arc’s capable, calm lyricism. He might be the producer, but Arc also shows a hand here for introspective rap that respects and reflects on women. Like an adult would. As an unexpected moral centre for the album “222” is an anomaly and a refreshing change of pace, a touch of catharsis in the midst of Flatbush Zombies’ descent into gothic-gangster madness.

BetterOffDEAD is a massive step forward for the group, in terms of production and presentation, both of which now arrive more confidently and fully-realized than ever before. Another result of their idiosyncrasy, though, is that criticism of Flatbush Zombies is relatively easy to come by. Were you aware that Action Bronson and Danny Brown both show up on this album? Neither was I, and I was halfway through Bronson’s turn before I even realized it was him, sounding lazier than ever on “Club Soda”. Danny Brown is more excited for his brief arrival on “Drug Parade”, but the Flatbush trio wisely limits downplays their collaborators’ presence, preferring to feature their own bombastic vocals. This much is fine. However, because Bronson and Brown have such trademark voices to begin with, Arc muddies their vocals to the point of near-distortion in order to accentuate his own crew, a bizarre move that damages both tracks. Additionally, and again this is difficult to describe by virtue of his voice, Meechy Darko has a habit of Cee-Lo-ing any track that features him on the chorus. That is, he dominates the mic every time he shows up. He’s Horrorcore Meatloaf. Zombie Juice does the same thing each verse, and the interplay between both emcees’ hyperactivity can be exhausting – as can the album’s suffocating weight. It takes a certain type of mood to listen to Flatbush Zombies, and BetterOffDEAD features none of the levity that their breakout hit “Thug Waffle” hinted back on D.R.U.G.S.. Growing pains abound, certainly (the boys are young), but what results is an album that can often be overwhelming in its enthusiasm to disgust and excite.

BetterOffDEAD is a dark and extensive listen, at times exhaustively negative in its density, but pleasantly surprising in its cultural awareness. No one is happy here; none of the performers, and by extension none of the audience. It’s a different kind of political hip-hop, and perfect for Vancouver’s cloudy Autumn season. As I said above, this is something like punk for a young African American audience, and for all their horror-imagery posturing there’s always a deeper, metaphorical intent behind the trio’s work – even though they clearly take greater joy in the medium (drugs, pageantry) than the message itself. After all, who else could come out with a knowing line like “I’m tryna free the slaves/young minds Bad Brains” than a would-be political messenger? And so Flatbush Zombies are certainly a sonic novelty, but rarely an empty one. The boys know what they’re doing and there is a political statement buried in here – so by all means listen to the divisive crew, but know what you’re getting into.

B

Flatbush Zombies are a strange thing to listen to. They know this: they’re giving it all away for free. By all means follow me and pick up D.R.U.G.S., or even BetterOffDEAD for yourself. You’ll enjoy it. Or you won’t. 

Flatbush Zombies are currently on tour supporting themselves, because they give all their music away for free. I saw them open for Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era. Their energy is crazy on album; ridiculous in person. Recommended.  

Reviewed right here, October 2013.

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Deltron 3030 – Event 2

There’s been a lot of discussion of Event 2 around the nest lately, and we’ve come to some sort of consensus that the thing was doomed to failure long before it had a chance to release. Even when the big online-stream day arrived, I know I found myself weirdly reluctant to listen – I knew the big comedown was coming. I also know I’m not the only fan that felt that way: Deltron 3030 being the undeniable bedrock-classic of weird sci-fi intellectual rap that it is, expectations ran absurdly high. Constructed by the ensemble cast of Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator, Kid Koala, Sean Lennon, Damon Albarn, MC Paul Barnham and anyone else close enough at hand, the 2003 original stands as one of the big crossover hip-hop benchmarks. Underground and afro-futuristic enough to qualify as legitimate hip-hop, weird enough to lure the rock fans in, stylistically varied and brilliantly-produced enough to stun jaded or inexperienced rap fans like myself (at the time), nothing hit like Deltron 3030 for a nerdy hip-hop neophyte. That said, it’s been ten years. These guys are getting old: most of the old cast is gone, and replaced, weirdly, by a pack of drama kids, comedians and oddballs. Oh. And one of the album’s unifying themes – when it isn’t a space-epic about Deltron saving the human race (or whatever) – is age and stagnation and frustration. Oh. That doesn’t sound like stoned, jovial cyber-afro-futurepunk, does it? So I went into Event 2 a tad worried. Not because the demo tracks weren’t fantastic, but because Event 2 is the Half Life 3 of underground rap bizarrity: there was no way it could stand up to the hype.

And it doesn’t.

But it tries! And a great deal of that success stems from Event 2 eschewing the notion that it might be anything but what it is: a ten-year reunion for a pack of aging oddities, one last cruise around the star-system for good times’ sake. Del’s voice hasn’t aged too noticeably, but his cadence has – a slower, loping rhythm that contrasts harshly with 3030‘s sometimes breathless energy. Dan the Automator (and DJ-turned-conductor Kid Koala) aren’t as concerned with scratching up dusty sci-fi samples anymore as they are with hashing original compositions in the vein of the prior album’s airy orchestral mashups. All this comes together to make Event 2 a significantly different beast – an album very much in the spirit of the original, but lacking its “oh hell why not” intensity. The boys couldn’t have expected their pre-nerdcore side project to blow up so huge, so here that creativity gets funneled down the barrel of hype and stature and a ten-year hiatus. It comes out the other side a leaner, more musically grandiose endeavour, but for all its Cyber somewhere along the way whatever made the trio ‘Punk has certainly been sacrificed for linearity and concision.

And age! Age is such an important theme for Event 2. It’s been ten years since the original; in real time, in fictional time. The original’s 3030 has pushed the clock forward to Stardate 3040 (courtesy of Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the fantastic intro) and times have changed in the Deltron universe. Most importantly, stuff is happening now. One of the original’s core strengths – and really, like me, you might have to go back and re-listen – is how little of a narrative it actually presented. Oh sure there’s plenty of fantastic wordplay and collage going on, but actual linear storytelling is nowhere to be seen in Del’s original afro-futurist opus until “Battlesong” – and that’s 2 songs shy of the outro. Event 2 leans in the opposite direction; it’s Alien to Aliens. “The Return” nods to “3030” right out the gate, and its near-seven minutes run a recap of the former album’s events. Maybe the problem therein is that despite how awesome the production is (and really, all the work done on this album sonically rules); it can be easy to lose Del in the shuffle. Or maybe, like me, you’re just momentarily thrown off by how different his flow sounds. He’s slower, measured to the point of nearly sounding behind the beat – and that’s going to happen a lot on Event 2. Following “The Return”, well, it’s story time. Event 2 is a crash-course through Deltron’s new galaxy-spanning adventures – and I mean we’re on his damn shoulder this time. No more grandiose depictions of here’s-me-destroying-the-government-with-a-virus-in-concept, this time we’re the HandyCam Deltron uses to explore the cosmos, one adventure after another. This can be cool, like on “Pay The Price” when Del raps a conversation with a corrupt, mind-controlled drone, or on “Talent Supersedes” after Del defects from his squad, and takes to marauding across the stars with his crew. It can also be completely disorienting and a tad frustrating – several listens in and I’m still pondering some of the plot points; a vice the original shared but mitigated by being novel as hell. So the structure’s certainly switched up, and to the album’s detriment. There’s a lot less playing with metaphor and complex wordplay than the original (though of course it’s still Del), and a greatly increased amount of neat little sci-fi vignettes. The bonus being that for new listeners, those 10-year-olds hearing this that hadn’t been born at the advent of the original [existential crisis here], this is going to be a pretty cool ride. For whatever flaws Deltron’s narrowed scope might bring, there’s still nothing like Deltron 3030 hitting the airwaves or cracking the top 40 these days, and we can rest confident Event 2 is certainly a more accessible listen to modern ears, if less artistically unprecedented.

Shy of finding a way to incorporate Janelle Monae, the guest list here couldn’t be more.. unexpected: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Aaron Bruno, David Cross/Amber Tamblyn, Zack De La Rocha, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, The Lonely Island, Black Rob, David Chang, Damon Albarn, Emily Wells, Casual, Mike Patton and Jamie Cullum. What was that about cooks and kitchens? This an album with 16 tracks: two of those tracks lack guest vocalists, and that proportion ought to tell us something about how Event 2 came into existence. This thing is a hype train doubtless, and to their credit the guest vocalists either do fantastic work or disappear entirely: Aaron Bruno can be heard, in theory, on “Nobody Can”. Maybe someone will scramble the waveforms and locate Mike Patton on “City Rising From The Ashes” like an Aphex Twin track. On the other end of the spectrum, Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets processed into an eery, ethereal pitch-shifted whisper, Emily Wells delivers her four bars exceedingly well, and The Lonely Island actually bring some of the most refreshingly relaxed comedic turns on the album. David Cross and Tamblyn are serviceably funny, giving us Event 2‘s “New Coke” moments, and Zack De La Rocha just can’t contain how Goddamn Excited he is to be Rapping Angrily because “FUCK YOUR FORMAT”. SURE ZACK, I’M ON IT. Again though, it’s an ensemble cast, and identifying the contributors blind can be a fun sort of game. Special mention is reserved, however, for Damon Albarn who manages one of the finest vocal turns of his post-Blur career on “What Is This Loneliness”, 2‘s “Time Keeps On Slipping”. “Loneliness”, remarkably, captures the spirit of the original and might even surpass its emotional impact. It’s a reminder of how absurdly talented the original Gorillaz team (that’s Damon, Del, Automator and Koala) can be when their chemistry clicks. It’s also Event 2‘s most transparent moment, something like an audio-flashback to 2003. It’s also the moment that Event 2 fell apart for me.

Well that’s ominous. Here’s what I mean: musically, Event 2 an absolutely gorgeous piece of work. The choruses range from catchy (“The Return”, “My Only Love”) to brilliant (“Loneliness”, “Do You Remember”, “Look Across The Sky”), and even the easily-skipped interludes succeed in their brevity. The production is largely a live orchestra conducted by Koala, and Del’s always been blessed with one of the most idiosyncratic voices in hip-hop – and nothing about that has changed (or can). The issue is that when I hit “What Is This Loneliness” and heard Albarn again, it hit home how cleanly Event 2 adheres to the curves of the original, and how derivative it is. Yes it’s a sequel, but it so often feels like a recast or an expansion pack. This isn’t Starcraft 2 it’s Brood War, man. And for all of Event 2‘s successes, that sense of  ‘new, action-packed retread‘ is bound to drive down the review score. For as much fun as it often is, Event 2 is a skin stretched uneasily over Deltron 3030, that’s beyond argument. So by all means listen if you like the guests. Listen if you want to hear some of 2013’s most ambitious and excitingly bizarre hip-hop production. Listen if you want to hear Del at least four times as invigorated as he was on Golden Era! But don’t go into Event 2 asking them to recast the Deltron mould; that starship has sailed, and likely for the best.

You know, until someone sticks them in a room with Janelle Monae.

B+

Originally published right here, October 2013

What’s happening?/I keep my dreadlocks in a napkin ring/Rap and sing/Unlike the homogenous clones/I’m into earth tones birth stones and erogenous zones/The more ticklish the more you have!

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LOUDR Hosts A Music Collection Fit for the Season: Game Music Bundle …Of The Damned!

It’s October again, the perfect season for all manner of spooky games (hello, A Machine for Pigs) movies (Black Sheep, anyone?) and music (Siouxsie!). And do I ever mean creepy music: just in time for Devil’s Night, the good people at LOUDR’s @GameMusicBundle have released another one of their fantastic and fantastically-affordable bundles to represent the season, this time entitled Games Music Bundle… of the Damned! As a sort of musical accompaniment to the Humble Indie Bundles, the Game Music Bundles come in a pair of exceedingly cheap formats – 1$ and 10$+, this time – packed with an absurd amount of bang for your buck.  I’ve long been an outspoken advocate of Video Game Music as a legitimate form of composition, and this pack is loaded with great examples. Here’s the album rundown, which reads like an autumnal bowl of lacquered gourds, for your Hallowe’en-themed pleasure.

At the one dollar US price mark, soundtracks for:
Amnesia – The Dark Descent
Amnesia – A Machine for Pigs 
LIMBO
Bloodrayne: Betrayal
Dead Space

And if you’ve got 9 extra dollars to spare, at the ten-plus mark they add:
gone home
Home
Year Walk
Penumbra – Special Edition OST
The Horror of Ms. Aurora
Organ Trail 
Alice: Madness Returns
Plants vs Zombies
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories 
[survaillant]
Manor of the Damned!
…and a special-edition version of Costume Quest‘s OST, maximized with bonus tracks.

Because we’re closing in on Hallowe’en, GMB’s gone even further to sweeten the deal. If the enormous amount of music weren’t enough of an incentive, they’re offering a series of bonus incentives for the top buyers.

In first place, now over $120: A special edition physical copy of LIMBO and a signed copy of the Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs score. 

For the top three buyers, now over $51.67: Physical copies of Dead Space and Alice: Madness Returns for either XBOX 360 and PS3, along with a Steam key for Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.

And for the top ten buyers, at over $50: Some sort of creepy mystery gift, courtesy of Game Music Bundle itself! Let’s hope it’s candy. 

Clearly, the deal can’t be passed up – I’m guilty of hosting a happily obscene amount of Video Game soundtracks here on my faithful drive, and this awesome bundle will be no exception. The deal’s good until Tuesday, November 5th at 10pm PST.  

Any soundtracks in particular catching your eye, any obvious missteps or missed opportunities? Still too scared to spin the physical edition of Silent Hill 3‘s spine-chilling soundtrack? Weigh in below!

http://www.loudr.fm/gamemusicbundle

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