Evolution of Psychedelic Rap: Kid Cudi to Flatbush Zombies

I remember listening to Kid Cudi for the first time. It was the summer before my freshmen year of high school. I was 12 years old, playing the then new Black Ops 1. The chill station on Pandora was playing in the background (I couldn’t afford Spotify or Apple Music back then).

I was in the midst of my multiplayer gameplay when a deep voice caught my ear. The song that was playing was Cudder’s “Soundtrack 2 My life”. The song was instantly added to my personal playlist and that was that. Later that week I would discover the 2009 masterpiece that was Man on The Moon: The End of Day.

I would constantly listen to this album, not knowing why I loved it so much (I was a bit late to the party). I learned that I enjoyed it because Cudi rapped about things that no one else was rapping about at the time. He spoke about topics such as depression, love, being lonely, and social anxiety. He rapped from the heart, actually making me feel the emotions he felt. His sound was what I described as “raw rap over spacey instrumentals”.

Fast forward 8 years later and I’m still listening to rappers that can be both emotional and fun at the same time; rappers who can show the truth in life but also create bangers as if it were their second nature. I found myself listening to the likes of Kid Cudi, A$ap Rocky, and Mac Miller more and more. These rappers, in my eyes, are considered “mainstream” but have managed to stay true to themselves, having commercial success with the masses but creating projects that are extremely personal and have transformed the rap genre.

However, there was something about them that I never noticed. Something that was always a common theme in their music. Cue the discovery of Flatbush Zombies. The first time I heard the trio that are the Zombies I was startled by Meechy Darko’s growl-like verses and Zombie Juice’s high-pitched delivery. It was off-putting at first but I decided to give them a try and I didn’t regret it. After listening to them for the first time, I could see influences of rappers such as Busta Rhymes and Biggie, the New York delivery that Rocky was famous for, and those “spacey” instrumentals I was familiar with.

Through the Flatbush Zombies, I found the common theme that permeated through the rappers I adored so much, psychedelia. According to Dictionary.com, psychedelia is described as “music, culture, or art based on the experiences produced by psychedelic drugs”. All of the artists I had been listening to had at some point in their lives experimented with psychedelics. Often, these experiences deeply shaped their music tastes and creative processes. I’m not saying psychedelics are the only reason these artists are who they are, but I am suggesting that their music is definitely influenced by the curious drugs that fall under the psychedelic umbrella.

While Cudi introduced psychedelic infused beats, (often associated with using electric guitars, extended reverb, and heavy keyboard presence), Mac Miller dropped drug-related projects such as Macadellic, and Rocky mastered the drip flow over trippy production, Flatbush Zombies created their own type of “psychedelic rap”.

Their first mixtape, Death and Reincarnation Under God’s Supervision, or D.R.U.G.S. for short, is a creepy, snare-heavy, project that introduces the Flatbush Zombies into the rap scene with a bang. Producer, founder, and the third member of the Flatbush Zombies, Eric “Arc” Elliot, samples from films and the likes of Pusha T and Eazy E. While the mixtape lacked a true sense of direction it brought a new sound to Brooklyn, something that caught peoples attention. Two of the mixtapes’ singles, Thug Waffle and S.C.O.S.A., are the perfect example of this new sound.

A year later, in 2013, the Zombies released their second mixtape, BetterOffDead. While the former mixtape introduced the Zombies to the rap game, BetterOffDead solidified their presence in the rap scene. Meech, Juice, and Erick all deliver verses with some of the grimiest and in-your -face flows that demand the audience’s attention. Meech’s voice, in particular, stands out as one of the most unique in the game, especially on tracks like “Palm Trees”. Their verses are elevated when combined with features from legends such as Action Bronson and Danny Brown. The project ranked at number 17 on XXL’s list of the best mixtapes of 2013.

Angelic vocals sharply contrast with grimy verses.

Their debut album, 3001: A laced Odyssey, landed in 2016, 3 years after their second mixtape. This project was the Zombies most ambitious venture yet and they managed to deliver. Songs like “Bounce” and “Your Favorite Rap Song” show off the trios insane flow and lyricism while “Fly Away” slows things down and showcases raw emotion. This album landed #1 and #2 spots on the Billboards top Independent Albums and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. What’s more the album perfectly sinks up with the Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey. 3001 was critically acclaimed and brought the Zombies well-deserved stardom. Yet, their stardom wasn’t near the levels of today’s Drakes and Migos. This is the only problem plaguing the trio; they lack streaming numbers and mainstream success.

But if you’re familiar with the Flatbush Zombies, you would know that they don’t care about mainstream success. They are true to themselves and really care about their craft. For this reason, I believe they have the potential to be in the same category as Rocky, Cudi, and Mac. Their newest project, Vacation in Hell was released in April of this year and it was an improved album by many means. Full with great lyricism, quality producers, accentuating features, and catchy hooks (something the trio never really cared for).

If you have the time, check out Vacation in Hell. The title may seem off-putting but Erick explains it perfectly; “To me, existence is hell. I mean, we live in the now so that’s why we titled the album that ’cause life is hell, but it’s about finding the cool spots out there. Once you’re born, you’re fighting to be alive so it’s like, you can’t sit here and act like everything is loving, roses and flowers and candy and gumdrops and shit, ’cause I don’t live that life.”

Promo video for Vacation in Hell (dumb funny)

The rap game is full of unique styles and artists but more and more people are starting to accept and bump “psychedelic projects”. Cudi’s Kids See Ghost and Travis Scott’s Astroworld are prime examples of this. I may be over my head comparing Flatbush Zombies to Rocky and Cudi, but I truly believe that they can bring their own twist to that psychedelia infused music that I and so many others love.