Coming off of an incredibly active 2022, which included collaborative releases with 183rd and Nym Lo, Real Bad Man and The Smokers Club — among other releases — illustrious Harlem-based MC Smoke DZA returns with his second project of the year, Flying Objects, an EP sonically crafted entirely by the highly esteemed producer and filmmaker Flying Lotus.
Smoke DZA is no stranger to combining Voltron with unlikely collaborators; a great example is Full Court Press, his project with Big K.R.I.T. and Wiz Khalifa — masterminded by DJ, beatmaker and mash-up aficionado Girl Talk. However, it would be unfair to describe Flying Objects as a true melding of distinctly unique aesthetics, as the bulk of the production across the bite-sized five-song affair feels relatively tamed down (relative to what you may expect from Flylo).
The duo still packs enough punch to make the EP worthy of multiple spins.
“Zelle Transfers,” an interlude of sorts, is the weakest link in the short but sweet set; it is also the most stripped-back beat Flylo provides here. So much so, it’s almost non-descript — to the degree that you wouldn’t assume he produced it if you weren’t told as much. It feels like an undercooked add-on, especially when sandwiched between two extremely solid songs: “Painted Houses” and “Drug Trade.”
In fact, it’s so low-key in its energy that when it abruptly cuts out and “Drug Trade” kicks in, it’s slightly jarring.
That lull aside, DZA curates some incredible guest verses from arguably two of the better bar-for-bar MCs walking the industry: Conway The Machine and Black Thought. Most impressively, but not unexpected if you’re a longtime fan, the Harlemite holds his own.
With a particularly atmospheric soundscape, “Painted Houses” sees DZA lamenting his indie status, rapping, “Free my niggas, free my niggas, give ’em freedom … they ain’t in jail, they in record deals/This independent shit, kinda show you how that leverage feel.” Elsewhere on the record, Conway adds yet another monster 16 to his already impressive year, reflecting the fruits of his (musical) labor, exclaiming, “I could go pull a few hundred out the safe, and that’s thousands by the way/My cake pilin’ by the way/Breakdown, ain’t sellin’ weight.”
“Drug Trade” is the EP’s crown jewel, with DZA mixing some elite drug quotables (“I met the plug then put my plug on”) with an impressive array of wordplay, with bars like, “My caliber got me thinkin’ on a higher algebra/Different devils come with heavy metal, not Metallica/
This my house, this home alone New York, I’m Kev’ McCallister.”
Obviously, Thought steals the show from the moment he utters “legendary, goddamn” on the chorus. He proceeds to drop a verse that requires more than one play-through to catch all the nuances.
The project is tail ended by Harlem 97 featuring Estelle, a song that playfully throws back to the UK singer’s breakout “American Boy,” and even interpolates bars from “Lookin’ At Me,” a song by Harlem legend Mase off of his classic debut, Harlem World (borrowing the line “Tellin’ me how she met Puff down at the Grammys,” and replacing puff with Wiz [Khalifa]).
Flylo never quite achieves any sense of complexity or gorgeous absurdity, which can be heard in many gems in his catalog, like “Never Catch Me” or “Dead Man’s Tetris.” It feels decidedly devoid of profoundly progressive, ambient electronic vibes that could challenge DZA to step outside his box. However, in a collaborative process like this, it’s curious to view things with the opposing perspective that DZA’s aesthetic possibly challenged Flylo to strip things back purposefully. Or they could have been underrealized and unreleased beats from his hard drive.
Nevertheless, “Zelle Transfers” aside, the project finds strength in its variation, whether it’s moody boom-bap, lush melody (see “Spiritual”) or neo-soul aesthetic — over which DZA sounds right at home, and reasserts his pen game without breaking a sweat.
Smoke DZA remains an aggressively underrated artist, with a discography that deserves way more celebration than it earns — a glum monument to how independent movements can sometimes get drowned out by the industry machine. Still, for the legion who are up on the Kushed God’s well-established penchant for solid projects, Flying Objects is worth “rolling up a Lizzo” and taking in; hopefully, it’s a sign that we may get a more substantial offering from the duo.