Tag Archives: Drugs

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.


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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Danny Brown – OLD

I can’t really say what it focuses on, because I don’t really know what it focuses on.

Oh man, Danny Brown. Anyone that made it to the end of XXX knows that Danny never really expected to make it this far – I mean, not that he never expected to make it this far in his career; the man clearly never expected to make it this far as in turn 32. Listening to XXX you get the sense Danny would have been unsurprised and satisfied going out at 27 – XXX  was a real piece of work, an album split straight down the middle into rigidly consistent A and B sides, first reveling in his notorious excess and then, jarringly, staring straight down the barrel of Danny’s former (and Detroit’s current) destitution in its latter half. XXX is one of my favourite bizarro-rap works of the last five years, no question, and to this day I have to convince friends to grind through its obtuse, grimy Side A to get to the introspective, calm-voiced Danny Brown that his yapping singles completely overshadow. In fact, any interview with Danny Brown is liable to induce the assumption that Danny must be some Avenue Q castaway; the druggy Muppet Henson never gave us. Danny’s unique in the respect that, in any given single or press announcement or interview, he sounds completely off his mind, at near-ODB levels. And maybe he is! Who cares! Because somewhere in there, past the weed and the pills he so notoriously enjoys, is a brilliant man whose flow and cadence still betray how bewildered and grateful he is to have made it this far, and whose supremely confident rhythm effortlessly careens over top of any beat thrown at him. See him live for proof of this. Danny Brown is bizarre; Danny Brown thinks he’s ODB. Danny Brown might be ODB. But then, I notoriously love weird for weird’s sake – so does OLD hold up to XXX‘s last-gasp-at-fame precision and kitchen-sink desperation?

I’m not convinced Danny is telling the truth in that quotation up there, where he pretends not to know wholesale what he’s up to. Somewhere behind the skinny jeans and the Skrillex hair hides a calculating and clever man, whose every move laser-sights him to greater exposure. RiFF RaFF can relate, I think, and so it’s something of a vogue time to be a rapper this strange. Make no mistake, Danny hasn’t let go of his puppy-bark flow or his blowjob jokes or his Molly shoutouts or his fixation with synthesizers. But for all that lovable/gross pop-culture weirdness, OLD is an obvious follow-up to XXX – to the extent that it more or less ignores the rest of his ridiculously-prolific output of late. The first half of OLD – and again he’s sequenced the album like vinyl, because he wants to be rapgame Bowie’s Low – comes at you like the knowing sequel to XXX‘s sober and sad B-side. On OLD’s Side A, Danny’s still alive somehow, and he’s still wrestling himself away from his Detroit street-life flashbacks. Artistically, that continuity makes sense. Fiscally speaking, Danny dropped “Grown Up”, “ODB”, “Dip” and “Kush Koma” since XXX released – and two of those tracks aren’t on the album at all, while the other two are buried on Side B. That means Side A is gutsy; I like gutsy. This is the sort of artistic license we get when a man like Danny, who ostensibly has no idea what he’s doing, is properly handed the wheel. Yes of course you bury the singles after you become a popstar – of course you keep Action Bronson and Kitty Pryde and your Bruiser Brigade and your hit singles far away from your commercial debut. You get to do that when you’re hugely popular and you’ve spent countless hours carefully convincing the pop world you’re insane.

Though it maintains that vinyl-side structural integrity, OLD does differ in a number of important ways. For one, Danny’s right: it isn’t as focused. Not at all – Side A (A is for Angsty) is all about giving us that “Old Danny Brown”, by which he means his J Dilla influences and his explicit raps about selling pounds of drugs, but also his flashbacks: “Torture” gives us a terrifying vignette of poverty and destitution. “Wonderbread” features a young Danny Brown getting curb-stomped over that same loaf that we remember from XXX. ‘Old Danny Brown’ means “The Return” too, on which we get Danny and Freddie Gibbs trading violence over Andre 3000’s “Return of the Gangsta” refrain (OLD‘s answer to “Grown Up”‘s ATCQ callback). “Dope Fiend” is a starkly juvenile rundown on Danny and Schoolboy Q’s evening activities (chorus: “Open wide ho”),  but tempers its ugly misogyny with an inescapable sense of desperation on both ends. The subject matter isn’t rare for Danny, even on the album where he promised us less blow-jobbery. To Danny’s credit, Schoolboy Q gets overexcited and scatters around the track unnecessarily; given more screen-time Danny’s trademark self-deprecation likely could have balanced the track. Or given us a reverse version of “I Will”. Who, really, can say. OLD‘s Side A stays suitably grim while giving us a more holistic Detroit ghetto – and to quote Danny is almost to do a disservice to his narratives when he finally does mention abortion, or drug abuse, or his mother. To an extent it’s the same old “Detroit Shit” we’ve been hearing since his mixtape days, but his flow is tighter and more descriptive, and the lower of his two voices almost monopolizes the first half, which opens the second up to the levity we’ve come to expect from the other face of Danny’s bipolar output.

And before we go there, a special nod to “Clean Up”, the first track I can recall that gives us a solid look into Danny Brown’s interiority. Because of his musical… condition, as a listener it can be difficult to ever say you know Danny Brown; where does he come from, in an emotional sense? Is he aware that there’s a massive disconnect between his multi-thousand-dollar shoes and the fact that his nation wants to sell his city to Canada? He’s aware, and for once he promises to “Clean Up”. It’s a complete reversal from XXX‘s suicidal overtones, and that’s not like him. It’s also a lie and he knows it, but to get something like ‘Danny Brown: The Ballad’ is a rare and surprisingly touching opportunity; it’s adult in a way the majority of his material betrays. It’s moments like this,  like Danny addressing his mother and daughter, that give OLD that touch of maturity and authenticity that Danny’s previous material largely lacked. The fact that it’s followed by the nihilistic, off-the-rails “Red 2 Go” is a brilliant turn that gives lie to the notion that he can keep his mind off the street for more than a song. It’s easy to forget that Brown is, well, old, and those moments when his odd wisdom shines through prove Danny’s strongest movements here.

Of course, he promises the same thing on “Dope Song”, the intro to Side B. He says it’ll be his “last Dope Song/but not [his] last Dope Song”, and maybe we sigh, and maybe we believe him. And then Side B is a pinball machine of drugs. Because Danny’s been charging his bark for an entire half of the album, he is yapping up a storm on Side B. Song by song we’ve got the bait-and-switch “Dubstep” (drug dealing), “Dip” (Molly), “Smokin and Drinkin” (…smoking and drinking), “Break It [Go]” and “Handstand” (twerking and twerking, sigh), “Way Up Here” (because Side B is the depressed Andrew WK of rap), and “Kush Coma” (ft. a lazy, track-sapping A$AP Rocky). Put a drink (or whatever, it’s Brown) in your hand and you might not even notice the cuts between tracks until you hit the sudden comedown of “Float On”, in which Danny’s voice drops back down, Charli XCX sighs the chorus, and we get a moment to reflect. “Remember when Mommy sent me for the Wonderbread/and n* came and stomped on my fuckin head?/It’s like I learned right then you either sink or you swim/an if you wanna beat your enemy you gotta think like him” – we know, Danny. We know from the several other tracks referencing that incident; that last track, with its quiet-hum organs, arrives as a knowing requiem for the rest of his lifestyle. Like “Clean Up”, it hits hard, and like that track it’s one more piece of evidence that Brown knows exactly what he’s up to. He might be ignorant all over side B, but Danny Brown is never ignorant of Side B, and that’s such an important distinction. I haven’t spoken much of the lyrical content on this side, and I don’t feel I have to: you know what happens. Danny’s naturally talented as hell, his beats are chilly sci-fi, his rhymes know just how to tinge his sexuality and his drug abuse with desperation, so you’re never quite happy – but like Danny, you’re never exhausted enough to quit, either.

Of course OLD doesn’t match up to the shock value of XXX – Danny’s breakthrough mixtape hit like a hammer and it had to, so many of us had never heard its like before. OLD isn’t as focused, for one, and it lacks that desperate hook-to-hook rap that captivated us on XXX, but that thematic pollution side-to-side works to its benefit. Though it never hits the former’s shout-along-chorus highs, Side A feels so much less obvious, and so much more packed with detail than its prequel, his reflection is less forced and more sincere this time. And maybe that’s because Danny’s mental state forces the two halves into interbreed: we’re never sure if he’s going to tell us a horror story or celebrate his own excess – but we know that like his sense of humour, he can’t leave out that nagging, suicidal doubt from nearly anything he writes. That sorrow-black core that paints nearly all of Brown’s work is instrumental to his success as a fantastically bizarre presence in rap, and like all of his material, OLD never lets the audience get comfortable. That might even be an issue of Brown’s crude sense of humour weren’t in full effect – but since when has Brown’s voice not embodied contradictions? This is a man that waxes sing-song about the moral and physical devastation of drug-addiction on “Dope Song”. I love it. It’s gross and awful and thought-provoking all at once; it’s a stomach-churning sort of laugh that he’s now perfected. OLD is strange in all the right ways that we’ve come to expect, from its vocal gymnastics to a Danny’s often-frigid beat selection, but so much tighter than Brown’s previous material – and that includes XXX. He’s never been particularly approachable on album, and nothing about that changes, but we’ve never been this far inside his head before. If we’re going to talk weaknesses, a nod is due to the generally forgettable guest-raps (though recognition is due to Brit-chopper Scrufizzer on “Dubstep”), and OLD‘s necessarily exhausting second half. That said, as the follow-up to a Mixtape that came out sounding like a eulogy, the opportunity to hear a properly mature Danny Brown is a treat and bound to be one of the coolest releases this year.


Originally published right here, October 2013.

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