On “Headstone,” the first single from Vacation in Hell, the latest album by the hip-hop trio Flatbush Zombies, the beat and vocal delivery are fairly upbeat. The lyrics, however, outline what the group’s members—Erick Arc Elliott, Meechy Darko, and Zombie Juice—would like to have written on their gravestones. And yet the song isn’t as bleak as one might expect: In fact, it’s a lengthy string of their favorite albums, songs, and lyrics, paying homage to 2Pac, Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang, Eminem, OutKast, and Missy Elliott, among many others.
At least since their 2016 debut album, 3001: A Laced Odyssey, Flatbush Zombies have become known for music full of references to LSD and mushrooms. On that album, the rappers sang the praises of psychedelic drugs and marijuana with an earnestness rarely seen since Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna were still alive. (The Zombies’ very first mixtape, from 2012, was called D.R.U.G.S.) Even so, they decided to limit their drug use over the period they were writing and recording 3001, and Elliott—the group’s producer, who also raps—has stated that he’s never used LSD.
Vacation in Hell, the Zombies’ second album, released on April 6, marks a notable change in direction. Many of the lyrics distance the group from recreational drugs; Flatbush Zombies seem more interested here in expressing their political views and touching on a variety of subjects far beyond their roots in “psychedelic hip-hop.” Elliott’s production branches out in a similar way, with fewer attempts to sound obviously psychedelic. Instead, the gospel influence that’s currently fashionable in rap (as well as with genre-bending groups like Algiers and Young Fathers) pops up in his use of choirs on several songs; “HELL-O” introduces the album with minor-key synthesizers straight out of an ’80s horror-movie score; and “YouAreMySunshine” omits the drums entirely, using piano and sampled vocals to memorialize A$AP Yams, the entrepreneurial leader of the hip-hop collective A$AP Mob, who died of an overdose in 2015.
The album’s stand-out song is its second single, “U&I,” a meditation on loyalty, attachment, and dealing with betrayal that is worlds away from the trendy, emo-derived declarations of depression and suicidal thoughts so familiar in recent SoundCloud rap. “U&I” opens with the singer Dia offering comforting words and Zombie Juice quoting the chorus of OutKast’s “Git Up, Git Out”: “You and I gotta do for you and I.” But his references to struggle and his assurance that success is on the way seem pretty mild compared with the song’s last verse. There, Meechy Darko—whose voice has grown into a deep, expressive rasp—raps for two uninterrupted minutes detailing the problems of his early life: His mom worked several jobs, and he rarely saw his dad; at age 5, he told his mother that he wanted to die, and he still feels like he’s clinging to death. The verse can be summed up by its conclusion: “I come from the struggle, motherfucker, get a clue.”
The fact that Meechy expounds on his emotions with such intensity and at a relatively extended length brings “U&I” close to the bleak power of Kendrick Lamar’s “u” or the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts.” The song’s heart-on-sleeve quality is the flip side of the braggadocio that typically suffuses much of hip-hop. Declaring “I still got a lot of maturing to do” isn’t a statement usually made on a rap song.
Struggle is also the standpoint from which Vacation in Hell develops its political commentary. The chorus of “Best American” asks: “Who’s the best American? Is it you?” The song protests police brutality, mass incarceration, poor living conditions and education, and more. But it isn’t all about pointing fingers; with the outro, “Best American” becomes a study of complicity and self-sufficiency: “We are all the problem when we lay down / And expect someone else to do the work for us.”
There is, however, a big limit to Flatbush Zombies’ politics, and that’s the amount of casual sexism found throughout the album. “The Goddess” is an attempt at a relatively respectful love song, but even it kicks off by objectifying lesbians. In politely phrased but condescending terms, “Chunky” dismisses feminism by asking, “Gender equality, what about human equality?”—without realizing that the second is impossible without the first. And on an album that features guest appearances by several male rappers, female voices are used for background warmth, but never given the opportunity to express themselves for more than a few lines. Although this is far from unusual with male rappers, the spirit behind Flatbush Zombies’ passionate anti-racism doesn’t extend to sexism.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the group is progressing. Despite the album’s title, Vacation in Hell isn’t a total wallow in depression; rather, it acknowledges the pain of mortality and the cost of despair. Although Flatbush Zombies were initially inspired by elements of the late-’60s/early-’70s counterculture, they’re developing an increasingly modern sound. And even without signing to a major label (their indie label is named Glorious Dead) or capitulating to mainstream trends, they’ve managed to find a fairly large audience: Vacation in Hell reached No. 11 on the Billboard Top 200 chart two weeks after its release. Running for 19 songs over 76 minutes with little filler, the album shows a level of growth that makes Zombie Juice, Meechy Darko, and Erick Arc Elliott sound more three-dimensional than they ever have before.