There's a good album hidden somewhere within "Vacation In Hell," but Flatbush Zombies often manage to distract from it.
First off, a disclaimer I'll be including on all reviews of albums over an hour and fifteen minutes long for no apparent reason other than stream trolling: this album is too damn long. There are valid reasons to make epic-length albums, such as the conceptual narratives of "De La Soul is Dead," or the contrasting poles of "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," but in the wake of Billboard's streaming-inclusive chart formula, content overload is the rule of the land. Stop the madness. Cut a few tracks.
Unlike artists who have been maligned for marathon-length albums in recent years, such as Migos or Drake, Brooklyn's Flatbush Zombies don't seem in danger of alienating anyone with the 19-track, 77-minute-long Vacation In Hell. Thank the fervent, insular fan base they've cultivated. Since their breakout, which made waves in mainstream rap media due to the group's affinity for LSD and sampling of infamous "Florida man" news reports, the trio have largely succeeded outside of the established channels in rap. Blogs don't spend a whole lot of time covering them, they've never had "hits," per se, and even their Wikipedia page is lacking in up-to-date information. Flatbush Zombies stay afloat thanks to career-long independence and devoted fans, who ensure that the group can tour 30+ dates a year and consistently sell albums (their last, 3001: A Laced Odyssey sold 28,000 copies in its first week, 24k of which were pure album sales, which is a much higher percentage than most artists enjoy these days).
This means that your average FBZ listener, unlike your average Drake listener, is going to have no hesitation about immersing themselves in 19 new tracks, rather than skimming around and looking for bangers. For the group, that's great, and even amid a busy chart week, I wouldn't be surprised if they debut inside of the top 10 again, which is no small feat for a truly independent act. The downside of such a diehard fanbase though, is a closed loop that doesn't often allow for valid criticism. Think of artists like Tech N9ne or Logic, whose extreme fans go out and exalt anything their fave releases, no questions asked. Part of what delegitimizes cult-driven artists, or keeps them out of hip-hop-wide conversations, is fans that will blindly ride for them and hear no criticism whatsoever. Have you ever tried arguing with a Hopsin fan?
All of this is to say, the Zombies are able to get away with things that artists whose fans range all the way from stans to casual listeners can't. For starters, Vacation In Hell's absurd length, but also problems with rudderless eclecticism and cliché-based songwriting. It's clear the group stacked their poppiest material at the front of the album, which could've created an interesting journey from positivity to darkness were it not for them trying on a bunch of styles that don't suit their dark, left-of-center vibe. Chief among these are "Vacation" and "Big Shrimp," which feature Zombie Juice doing impressions of Big Sean and Swae Lee, respectively, on the hooks. Then there's "Headstone," with its eye-rolling gimmick of playing dial-a-cliché with rap albums, song titles, and memorable bars. As if we needed clarifying, the group also took the time out to annotate that song specifically on Genius. If Zombies' fanbase contained more casual rap listeners, they'd probably get at least a little roasted for including meaningless lines like, "I hit it Doggystyle, she throw it back, yeah I'm Born to Mack" or "'Reservoir Dogs,' check The Score, 'Ignorant Shit'" just to show their depth of rap knowledge.
It's not like the Zombies' existing lane isn't wide enough to explore a number of sounds and styles. These guys can rap their asses off, as best evidenced by Zombie Juice and Erick Arc Elliott tag-teaming the final verse of "M. Bison" with rapid-fire start-stop flows as thrilling as they are unpredictable. They speak boldly and intriguingly about darkness and depression, and Vacation In Hell is at its best when the music matches the eerie mood the group cultivates. The haunting piano line of "Leather Symphony," the way the shapeshifting "U&I" beat incorporates guitar and a choir, the psychedelic guitar loop on "The Goddess"— the Zombies expertly wield this darkly trippy sound. This album is flush with cool moments that get overshadowed by more middle-of-the-road ones. Above all, "Chunky" illustrates this best. We're thrown headfirst into a disorienting rhythmic soup with Meechy Darko's hypnotic flow as our only handhold, the pace picks up, and then all of the sudden, the beat drops out and we're given a creepy hook that's solely accompanied by an electric bass. I was ready to call this the best FBZ song ever, but then... that Zombie Juice verse.
It starts off decent enough, with Juice adopting a very Lupe Fiasco-circa 2006 flow, but then he starts getting into politics. Some of his points are very valid, such as the racism inherent in American media ("They only use blacks when describing negative views/Only show blacks when they violent in their views") or wealth inequality ("This ain't about the land of freedom, the richest lead 'em"). But hand-in-hand with these come views that are either shallow digs at social media ("All these follower but no one's leading"), victim blaming ("Parents be gone, don't teach their kids right or wrong"), or worst of all, dismissals of valid civil rights movements ("Gender equality? What about human equality?"). Juice's half-woke, half-regressive "Chunky" verse is the first of many libertarian-minded moments on Vacation In Hell that may seem harmless on their own, but add up to a worldview that's shockingly conservative.
Some of this merely occurs within rap boundaries, such as a "Fuck that mumble rap" line, or a complaint about "New weird n****s." These aren't rare in rap, but they show a bit of historical ignorance on the part of the Zombies, who occupied a similar role as weirdo rap pariahs around five years ago. Now that they've ascended to a level at which they can phone in favors from Jadakiss and Bun B, though, they're honorary members of the rap classicist cognoscenti who can now repeat the toxic cycle and lash out at the next generation.
More pressing, though, are the Zombies' reductive view of women, proliferation of conspiracy theories, and blaming of impoverished communities. "The Goddess" is clearly their attempt at big-upping the women in their lives, but it's a female empowerment anthem for dudes who think "You used to make me sick, now you make me sandwiches" is a killer pickup line. Juice then presents an unrealistic, idealized view of women on his "I like x-type girls" verse. Many songs, including "Chunky" and "Trapped" feature female vocals, but only one of them ("U&I") gives credited to the featured vocalist (BIA, who by the way also killed her feature on Kali Uchis' new album) on the tracklist. Maybe the Zombies like sing-on-our-song-but-get-paid-less-than-us-type girls?
The whole conspiracy theory thing has been a Beast Coast staple from the start, and is not as pronounced on Vacation In Hell as it is on other projects by artists under that umbrella, but especially with all of the actual terrible stuff currently going on in the world, I don't need to hear some Alex Jones-type bullshit about how the government controls the weather. That, in particular, takes away from the rest of Juice's "Best American" verse, in which he calls out cops killing unarmed black men, pedophilic politicians, and unlivable prison conditions, which are all provable, dire concerns. The glaring subtext of that song doesn't rear its head until the spoken word outro, in which the speaker says "we are all" to blame for our country's various woes, heavily implying that he's talking to those who live in underprivileged communities.
Perhaps those people are too busy struggling to make a living to homeschool their kids after school, perhaps they aren't just "laying down and expecting somebody else to do the work" for them, maybe they have little to no say in the existence and persistence of a school-to-prison pipeline. If you dig all the way down, sure, maybe everyone's doing or not doing something that results in the worsening of our country. But by and large, these decisions are made by those with historical privilege and power, and saying "we are all the problem" makes the Zombies sound like right-wing politicians who are quick to shift the focus to black-on-black crime and "welfare queens" to distract from their much realer, much worse infractions against democracy. On one hand the Zombies are clearly anti-Trump, but on another, they're engaging in the same rhetoric as some of his political allies.
Vacation In Hell's troublesome politics are a microcosm for its overarching problem of half-baked ideas. Hiding amid the conspiracy theories are genuine political concerns; hiding amid 19 eclectic tracks are some genuine gems.