There is no simple explanation as to what makes something psychedelic. Imagine what would come up if you searched psychedelic visuals on YouTube and what you imagined probably isn’t too far off from the results – lots of colors, geometric patterns, shifting shapes, and a drifting camera filming from the abyss.
Indeed, psychedelic music is nothing new. Sitars and shifts in time signatures. Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar. Backward recordings and heavy distortion. Unique musicality and whimsical lyrics. There was a peak in the late ’60s and early ’70s, climaxing with ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
The Grateful Dead hit the road for four decades, and until recently psychedelic music has largely been focussed powerful instrumentation, fancy guitar solos, and sex appeal.
Nowadays, more people have been to a music festival than haven’t. Marijuana is no longer fringe, it’s mainstream and has many advocates. Podcasts allow for uncensored discussions where household names like Aaron Rodgers can openly admit to the use of ayahuasca. Music production is more electronic and spacey with less focus on instruments.
The psychedelic impulse has reached its fullest, most realised platform yet – rap music. Here’s 10 vital recordings that explore the outer reaches of the imagination.
10. A Tribe Called Quest – ‘Beats, Rhymes And Life’
The first 10 seconds of ‘Get A Hold’ are enough for ‘Beats, Rhymes And Life’ to make the list. Just look at that album cover.
New York’s Native Tongues were the first to usher in a style of hip-hop that lent itself to the exploration of the human condition. This allowed the genre to move forward to what it is today. Genius.com’s description of Tribe states: “A Tribe Called Quest is to hip-hop what Pink Floyd is to rock ‘n’ roll.” The production by The Ummah (Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bolstered by a young legend in the making – Jay Dee) is perfect to get lost in. The dynamic back-and-forth vocals between Tip and Phife Dawg can only be achieved by two rappers at the pinnacle of a lifelong friendship.
Not Tribe’s most critically acclaimed project, but the stripped-down and straightforward production lends itself to the psychedelic-rap impulse. The funky guitar samples, compelling storytelling, well-crafted song structures, and drum patterns are conducive to head-nodding or full-body grooving. The subject matter isn’t always light, and there was internal strife between the members at this point, but Tribe was at the height of their powers when they released this album.
The group, at the end of the day, loved making music, spreading positivity, and having a good time. There are stories in the Beastie Boys Book of A Tribe Called Quest and Beastie Boys taking shrooms and playing basketball together. This type of shenanigans bled into their music-making.
9. Flatbush Zombies – ‘3001: A Laced Odyssey‘
Another rap group consisting of a massively talented rapper/producer, Erick the Architect, partnered with emcees Meechy Darko and Zombie Juice. Flatbush Zombies really helped to reinvigorate psychedelic rap as a concept. They formed in 2010 but didn’t release any music until 2012. They were busy cooking something that would be undeniable when it was finally released on Youtube. ‘Thug Waffle’ is an excellent embodiment of the group. They did it all independently, and although none of them have gone mainstream, Erick the Architect is on the verge of breaking through.
If the cover art and title don’t explain the genre well enough, nothing will. No ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and it’s not-so-subtle subtlety. ‘3001’ opens with a song titled ‘The Odyssey’, as any trip ultimately becomes. 12 songs averaging five minutes each to allow for the listener to ride the tide of psychedelia.
An atmospheric vibe of drifting into space with the three zombies as our guides, and Erick the Architect acting as the supervising pilot. Songs could be characterised as vibey, bouncy, dark, and often funny. There are suicidal ideations, braggadocious claims, chants, and harmonizing interludes. The songs are anchored by the eclectic production featuring bongos, gentle piano melodies, strings, and good old-fashioned boom bap.
8. Edan – ‘Beauty And The Beat’
Edan’s homage to rap and ’60s acid rock is so well produced that it would be an all-time instrumental album alongside J Dilla’s ‘Donuts’ and DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’. The opening track is Edan showing off his djing and sampling skills. Edan then bounces quick-wit bars off his own samples and fellow underground rapper Insight Innovates on the second track, ‘Funky Voltron’.
The project is fast-moving and high-energy. It is a fine-tuned assortment of samples—from Pink Floyd to DJ Jazzy Jay—overall production, and concise wordplay. “The source of the blast was a porcelain gat” Edan raps (along with several other poetic bars) on ‘Murder Mystery’, the beat of which features a funky bass line and what sounds like reversed organ notes, concluding with a jazzy trumpet solo and a fading crescendo of notes like The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’.
The production is as fast-paced as the rapping. Edan’s voice is strong enough to cut through the beats like an instrument.
‘Beauty and the Beat’ is made for students of music. ‘Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme’ is a layered track that traces the history of the genre and pays respects to the innovators of rap. ‘Torture Chamber’ is a lyrical assault from Percee P assisted by drum-heavy production. ‘Rock and Roll’ shouts out pioneers such as Jimi Hendrix, The Zombies, and The Blue Oyster Cult.
Forward-thinking and old-school cool. The magnificence of ‘Beauty and the Beat’ is all the influences it manages to combine into a cohesive piece of art without any empty space. Edan is the Humble Magnificent, stating in an interview, “Just because something happens today does not mean it is an improvement on yesterday. That is why I study my manuscripts and my old music. I want to know how high these people have climbed, and I would like to learn from them.”
7. A$AP Rocky – ‘At. Long. Last. ASAP’
A$AP Rocky claims that a rainbow shot out of his member while he was climaxing on acid. Hard to say if it’s true or not, but it’s more fun to assume that it is.
Unlike some albums on the list, this one was made explicitly with the use of performance-enhancing hallucinogens with the clear intention of being psychedelic. It is a quest for peace from a young man dealing with the loss of his longtime friend and collaborator A$AP Yams.
‘At. Long. Last. ASAP’ is a reference to the Muslim word for God—A.L.L.A., Allah. The first track, “Holy Ghost,” deals with Rocky’s spiritual journey. There are worse ways for Rocky to go soul-searching than writing about his subconscious to the tune of Danger Mouse production.
The listener gets to view all sides of Rocky’s personality, along with the inner conflict and demons he is facing. His voice is captivating and his calm flow is soothing and soulful. The music video for ‘L$D (LOVE X $EX X DREAMS)’ is an adventure through a trippy night in Tokyo. The production is stripped down and minimum with Rocky’s exhale acting as a primary instrument on the track. The instruments and vocals are reverbed, slowed, pitch-altered, reversed, and minimal at times. Far-off adlibs from Ferg enhance the experience. The features are well-placed and welcoming.
The tone of the album is spacey/mellow (‘JD’ and ‘L$D’) and haunting (‘Electric Body’), bringing to mind visions of nighttime. Sitting by the fire in an otherwise dark house. Walking through an empty city in the early AM. Enjoying the high and hoping the night will never end.
6. Young Thug – ‘Barter 6’
Technically a mixtape, but it makes the list because of its scope and cohesion.
Arguably the most impactful projects of the 21st century. ‘Barter 6’ inspired and influenced an entire generation of rappers. One of eleven (ELEVEN!) children, Young Thug grew up in the same Atlanta neighborhood as rap legends Waka Flocka Flame, 2 Chainz, and Ludacris.
‘Barter 6’ was the major commercial breakthrough for Young Thug. Thug can go from whispering to screaming to harmonizing to laughing and it all sounds purposeful and effortless. He can jam ten words in a bar and seamlessly follow it up with only one word in the following line. He’s been described as innovative, experimental, versatile, and a pioneer.
Young Thug’s voice is ideal to shepherd a trip. The vocal effects on ‘With That’ capture his essence without him having to say too much. There are well-placed features from veteran rappers T.I., Boosie Badazz, and Birdman, who were smart enough to realize the breadth of Thug’s abilities and helped introduce an older generation of rap fans to the next big thing.
The thing about Thug’s vocal performance is that it is all off the cuff (according to an interview with Complex—which helps to explain his prolific songwriting). It is jam-band-esque, conducive to mind-wandering expansion.
Producers London on da Track and Wheezy capture Thug in all his glory. The beats are dark and joyous, raucous and mellow, minimal and elaborate. Thug’s lyrics are braggadocious and outrageous, but they don’t seem pretentious. The album is carefree while at the same time monumental. It is high-brow art that appeals to a massive audience.
5. Quasimoto – ‘The Further Adventures of Lord Quas’
Pitch-altered vocals, a yellow cigarette-smoking mascot creature, jazzy and eclectic production, and samples across genres and forms of entertainment. ‘The Further Adventures of Lord Quas’ is the embodiment of digging deep into the strangeness that rests in the back of our minds.
Madlib is a DJ/Producer/MC (in that order) that has been part of some of the most important records in hip-hop. Madvilliany, Jaylibs, MadGibbs. One of the most talented producers working today. An instrumental figure in the underground that has inspired a variety of artists and encouraged people to be themselves by embracing his own weirdness.
Quasimoto, his rapping alter ego, is a distinct flavor that is meant to be consumed with an open mind. Left-field song structure that bounces back from samples to raps to conversations with himself.
To create the pitch-altered style of rapping, Lord Quas slows down the songs, raps over them, then puts them back in the original BPM. This results in a choppy flow that rides the beats like a waverunner. The production features lasers, coins, video game sounds, single bass notes, and whatever else Madlib felt worked with the song. The amazing thing is how it all comes together into something that is beautiful and strange.
A voyage in creativity from one of the most talented and well-versed music historians. An absurdist adventure that listeners can only sit back and consume with awe because it is unimaginable without a mind and skillset as expansive as Madlib’s.
4. Kid Cudi – ‘The Man on the Moon: The End of the Day’
‘Man On The Moon: The End Of The Day’ encapsulates nostalgia and whimsy. A genre-spanning dream sequence inside the mind of an intensely vulnerable artist. Cudi knew he was making something that was going to change the soundscape of music. He wanted hooks that people could sing with him in stadiums. Something that would help people go on the roller coaster of what it is like to be Cudi. ‘The Man On The Moon’ is purposeful and deeply personal, yet astonishingly relatable.
The album takes the listener through five acts, each one varying in emotional theme and stellar orbit. Cudi sings from the heart, he puts his soul on each record. His soul-rattling hums make listeners feel safe. Most of the vocal performance is somewhere between singing and rapping, something completely original that Cudi mastered in the studio with lush beats made by Kanye, Ratatat, Emile Haynie, Plain Pat, and others.
Scott Mescudi helps people to get in touch with their emotions. There’s never been a fight at a Kid Cudi concert. He’s going through it – evident by his earnest lyrics – and that’s alright because it’s okay to not be okay.
Really, this project is about introspection. Looking inward to face demons and insecurities with the goal of strengthening overall mental health through confrontation rather than suppression and ignorance. Overcoming deaths of loved ones, loneliness, and adulthood. The message is to be yourself and to find your own personal Cudi Zone.
3. Ab-Soul – ‘Control System’
Another artist who put mental health at the forefront of their artistry. ‘Control System’ is dedicated to a partner – Alori Joh – that took her own life shortly after contributing features to the album but before production wrapped (allowing for the inclusion of one of the most emotional songs ever in ‘Book of Soul’.)
The album cover features the Tree of Life and the Sephirot as viewed in the Kabblahistic vein of thinking… basically, Ab-Soul is a very heady artist and this is a voyage into the spirituality and mysticism that he likes to explore. ‘Control System’ wants the listener to question the mechanisms of society and the systems of control used to exploit the average individual. It transcends not only genres but art forms, with ‘Book Of Soul’ effectively acting as a memoir describing the major adversities that Ab-Soul has had to conquer (a life-threatening Stevens-Johnson Syndrome that left him legally blind and a soulmate’s suicide) in his quest to find meaning.
Themes vary from conspiratorial paranoias on ‘Terrorist Threats’ and ‘SOPA’ to lighthearted ‘Track Two’, to hopeless romantic on ‘Lust Demons’. Soul doesn’t talk about the third eye, that’s played out, he talks about the ‘Pineal Gland’. Ab-Soul is at the height of intellectual curiosity, asking questions that everybody wants to know, like what’s going on at Bohemian Grove? As well as accusations against the powers that be, like ‘Double Standards’ being used to manipulate the masses.
Kendrick and Soulo rap “They wanna share my light,” in the chorus of ‘Illuminate’. Ab-Soul recognises the irony here, Stevens-Johnson Syndrome has caused him to be sensitive to light, but it has not stopped him from illuminating the rap game with his enlightened bars.
2. Mac Miller – ‘Swimming’
Mac Miller loved making music. Each of his albums has its own sound and feel. ‘Swimming’ is his magnum opus. Soothing singing, fine-tuned raps, smooth production, and a sense of hope in despair. It is about ‘Self Care’, overcoming drug addiction, heartbreak, and dealing with fame. Mac is coming to terms with everything while maintaining a swagger and boasting an enviable musical prowess.
The opening track, ‘Come Back To Earth’, sets the tone for the rest of ‘Swimming’. The music video depicts a little scuba-diver-type man floating through a gray abyss. The song is a slow build that prepares the listener to go freestyling (the swim stroke) through the tracklist. Mac’s versatility is on full display, providing himself with production that pairs flawlessly with his stoner cadence. It is the work of somebody who is going through the process of healing and understands that the path is not linear.
The album is aptly titled ‘Swimming’. Not only do the ebbs and flows of the production feel like a wave, but the persistence that Mac has demonstrated in his creative output feel like he is swimming to shore in rough waters.
No longer a teenage rapper, Mac is a fully-formed musician that feels at ease when he is creating. Naturally, the album cover is a culmination of all of his previous covers meshed into one. It is the result of an entire adult life under the spotlight. Mac could have stuck to making goofy music for drunk fraternity students, but he refused to be complacent. Instead, Miller chose to spend his life honing his craft, making timeless artwork that continued to evolve over the span of a decade.
1. Chance the Rapper – ‘Acid Rap’
Nonsensical and exuberant lyrics alongside poignant social commentary and personal confessions over production that draws from jazz, blues, soul, rock n roll, and everything in between. A celebration of life despite its constant hurdles. Making something from nothing (an independent artist that released the “mixtape” as a free digital download… yet it still reached the Billboard Top 100). Vocal exercises that would impress Mariah Carey.
The name suggests that it is a mixtape about acid or drugs, but it is so much more than that. It is one of the most fulfilling tracklists of the past decade. It is its own genre of music. Chance describes things in a way that is completely original. He doesn’t want a Rolex, he wants to “Get a watch with all that glitters, come in clutters, different colors.” He says sporadicity a few bars later. The second verse begins with Chance dropping one word at a time, riding the production, and snowballing in momentum until he begins again with his jaw-dropping wordplay and flow.
Chancelor Bennett was only 20 when the mixtape came out to critical acclaim. Thus, the childlike energy and mania are understandable, what is incomprehensible is the wisdom in the songs as demonstrated on the second track. Chance seamlessly goes from a daft showboater on ‘Pusha Man’ to a reflective thinker on ‘Paranoia’. The regrets expressed on ‘Cocoa Butter Kisses’ are those of a man twice the age of Chance. There is no ego in this album, evident by the extensive features and the opportunity they are given to shine.
‘Acid Rap’ is number one on the list because it does everything that a psychedelic album should. It is inventive, unconventional, thought-provoking, fun, and introspective. It allows the mind to go to places that it hasn’t been before. It evokes sentimentality and hope.
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Words: Eric Schuster