Written by: TC
Coming out of the same Beast Coast collective as Joey Badass, the Underachievers first stepped on the scene with their Indigoism mixtape which was released in 2013 on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. The mixtape was a combination of weed songs and mystical references to chakras, vague spirituality and references to the third eye. In my opinion, Indigoism was one of the best mixtapes of the 2010s next to Live.Love.ASAP. They took the classic boom bap sound of 90s New York and updated to fit current sounds of the time. From there, they have released two mixtapes, two albums and three solo recordings. Throughout their career, the Underachievers have straddled the line between more classic sounding hip hop and trap inspired, 808 heavy bangers. They have proved equally adept at both styles but it seemed like they were fence sitters afraid to pick a side. They even reference this on the title of the second album, Evermore: The Art of Duality. On that album, they even break it up to feature boom bap on side and all trap on the other. While I applaud their versatility, I feel playing both sides has led to their albums being incohesive and somewhat uneven. I feel they are much more effective in their execution when they concentrate on one style as witnessed on last year’s excellent mixtape It Happened In Flatbush which was all trap style bangers but with higher quality lyrics than the usual trap release.
On Renaissance, the Underachievers have finally achieved the perfect balance and thusly have released their finest and most consistent album to date. Production wise, they work with familiar co-conspirators Ronny J and Powers Pleasant but the majority of the production are handled by newer, up and coming producers such as Tedd Boyd and liidhw. Most of the production is reminiscent of more of a classic boom bap with soulful samples and vintage sounding horns similar to what we’ve heard before on Indigoism. An example of this is the second track, “Eyes Wide Open” which even goes as far as use one of hip hop’s bedrock drum loops from “Synthetic Substitution”. Even though, the production is influenced from classic New York, I never feel like the Underachievers are just another retro act or just historical re-enactors. I get a strong Madlib feel on the opening track “In My Zone” which sounds like something that could have been on Madlib’s album with Freddie Gibbs, Pinata. Unlike their previous highlight, Indigoism, thankfully the mixing and mastering is very crisp on this album. Every snare sounds crisp, the keys sound lush and the samples sit perfectly in the background. The Underachievers have also introducted a new wrinkle in their style. Both “Saint Paul” and “Break the System” both features very strong, powerful backup vocals from Mello. These backups add gravity and sincerity to the tracks that they are featured on. While most of the production sounds like classic New York, there is definitely some variety as well. The album’s standout track, “How We Roll” sounds like classic Devin the Dude with its relaxed, woozy narcotic flow with some very chill guitars. “Crescendo” is an excellent banger with Ronny J’s patented deep 808s.
As far as the vocal performances, this album finds both Issa and AK at the top of the respective games. While AK has been rapping since age 11, Issa didn’t really start until 2011. On previous releases, you could tell AK was more of a natural MC as his breath control and flow were preternally clear and in control. Issa was very capable but sometimes he would try to fit too many words and syllables in a bar. On this release, Issa has finally caught up with AK and even outshines him on a few tracks. From the very first track, “In My Zone”, Issa shows off his much improved flow and wordplay. On the track, he remarks how “the hood’s a trap and the cheese is catching the rats”. This idea is reprised on another standout truck “Break the System” in which AK begins discusses police brutality and the prison complex being the new slavery. He even drops a line about wanting to go back in time so he can slap a slave master in the mouth. Issa’s verse vividly describes a young child whose father is in jail and whose mother doesn’t love him because he reminds her of his father. Through the verse, the character Issa creates ends up dropping out of school to sell drugs instead of using his natural gifts. In the end he ends up going to jail for murdering a rival and ironically shares a cell with his incarcerated father. Issa notes how this cycle of pain and struggle is caused and how it is truly systematic. The majority of the album describes some form of struggle whether it be lack of role models or substance abuse. By using stories and relatable characters, the Underachievers are able to paint a more vivid picture on the struggle that black youth face than Joey Badass was on his All Amerikkkan Badass album.
Overall, I was very pleased with Renaissance. The production was mostly on point and as MCs, I can hear the progress that both AK and Issa have made since their start on Indigoism. That being said, this project is about 3-4 songs too long. The album should have ended with “Break the System” especially after Issa’s excellent verse. The remaining three tracks are perfectly fine but they feel superfluous and non-essential. I’m always reminded of a classic GZA quote, “keep it brief son, half short, twice strong”. To me a strong 11-12 song track list would have been much more powerful and memorable. That being said, I salute the Underachievers for choosing a lane and sticking to it instead of trying to play both sides. In an era of trap dominance, it shows a lot of faith in their ability to attract fans using a slightly anachronistic style. At the same time, they have also kept the sound modern and varied enough to not just being a throwback. I highly recommend this album.