Two coffins stand upright flanking mock cemetery gates, while black-hooded men haul a third across the stage as the lights dim. They deposit it at the gates’ mouth, in front of what looks like an old-timey hearse. The coffins are each identified with a symbol: an ankh, a heart, a pyramid. Arpeggiated synth chords bubble up on the p.a. – equal parts John Carpenter and modern trap music. A few bars later, Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice, and Erick Arc Elliott burst forth from their respective coffins barking the furious first verse to “Hell-O”. Flatbush Zombies are here to take you on a vacation to hell.
Last Thursday, the Zombies descended on Montreal’s l’Olympia to deliver a set that embraced the drama and theatricality inherent in all the best hip-hop. The venue’s gilded stage just happened to be the perfect canvas for the set’s elaborate production design. An interesting, if somewhat unevenly paced, three-act setlist also showcased the Brooklyn group’s thoughtful approach to live performance.
Kirk Knight, of the Pro Era hip-hop collective, delivered a great opening set. Leveraging the simplicity of his songs’ hooks, Knight took the time to teach some of his new material to the receptive, sold-out crowd before performing it. This led to massive singalongs, including one of the biggest raised lighter tributes I’ve ever seen during new song “Down Time”. The set was generous and well-honed, and I was really glad to see Knight turn up during the Zombies performance for their ridiculous collaboration “Big Shrimp”.
Flatbush Zombies, part of the “Beast Coast” movement that includes Joey Bada$$, the aforementioned Pro Era and the Underachievers, have always stood out by being purveyors of weird. While “Beast Coast” as a movement is largely defined by old-school 90s New-York boom bap, the Zombies have built a career teetering on an axis that pivots between Gravediggaz-indebted horrorcore and deeply stoned psychedelic cloud-rap. On stage, all these facets of the group’s sound and personality were on display.
Their set started strong with material culled from their new album Vacation in Hell. The group’s quick, percussive, Bone-Thugs-adjacent flows sounded great in a live setting. The raw live performances helped to further distinguish the Zombies’ three vocalists; Meechy Darko’s baritone growls rattled ribcages, Zombie Juice showcased his quick-fire nasal delivery, and Erick the Architect occupied that sweet middle, injecting melody and in-the-pocket precision.
That said, the Zombies, much like their shambling namesakes, are most effective as a group — a fact made obvious by a second act that saw the members taking solo turns to inconsistent results. While this allowed for the group to indulge in adventurous stylistic detours, including sung vocals on r&b and gospel-influenced tracks from their latest album, it also illustrated that the Flatbush Zombies’ greatest strength is in the interplay, contrast, and camaraderie between its three primary MCs. While perfectly competent, this portion of the set was robbed of the dizzying alchemy and immediacy that occurs when the Zombies are bouncing off each other, trading verses and hyping their bandmates with creative ad-libs.
Thankfully, the three vocalists reconvened on the charged-up hustle anthem “Trade Off”, kicking off the show’s final act. Each member took virtuous turns mutating that song’s infectious hook, and the revved-up crowd sang along with every bar. That alchemy was undeniably back.
Vacation in Hell’s final track “The Glory” capped off the evening, Erick Arc Elliott’s chorus of “I wanna see you winnin’, I wanna see you get the cash / Wanna see you finish, don’t wanna see you wave the flag / Wanna see you try hard, wanna see you do it big / Raining champagne for, ‘long as I could get a swig” acting as a perfect send-off. As each Zombie finished their verse, they clambered back into their coffins one by one. When the third lid had shut, the lights dimmed, the beat faded, and a great night of hip-hop had come to an end. Well… until the encore at least.
Reviewer – Jean-Michel Lacombe
Photographer – Maxime Fremy