The famed language cognoscente of early 20th century America H.L. Mencken described certain words as “intrinsically musical, in clang-tint and rhythm,” presenting “cellar door” as a particularly melic phrase (The New York Times, “Cellar Door,” 2.11.10).
The Underachievers’ first studio album, “Cellar Door,” reflects lyricism and sharp, musical rhymes, but with less variation in songwriting than of which they are capable.
Recently signed to Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder, the Underachievers are AK and Issa Gold, two young rappers from Flatbush, Brooklyn. AK is the more seasoned MC with a gruffer voice, a hugely masterful technique and an arsenal of flowing beats.
He floats between bars more readily than Issa, who has more predictability with his musical phrasing and rhythms.
Both demonstrate tremendous breath control and can ride any beat they’re on, and rhythmically they stay tight and on-point throughout this project.
Issa has only been rapping for a few years; as he explains in a 2012 Verena Stefanie Grotto documentary, he “literally came to music just to spread a message” (as noble a reason as any), which is absolutely remarkable considering the incredibly tight, on-point 20 bars opening “Radiance.”
It does, however, mean rare slip-ups where Issa’s spitting is sloppy and his normally laser-like technical precision falters. On his second verse of “Chrysalis,” he struggles to enunciate a line chock-full of sibilants: “People hear this sh*t they thinking that it’s sadistic / But the music save the masses, the masses be saving us from disaster / In the 60s with the peace organizations and black panthers / Now they bump my music over the seas, the lyrical pastor.” The audacity is admirable and the writing is quality, but the execution was largely lacking.
In general on this album, The Underachievers tend toward denser verses at the expense of hooks, choruses and features. The MCs are incredible, no doubt, but are ambitious with their message (“seeking higher like my notes Mariah”) and overwrite. Inevitably using double time and bullet-like staccato just to get words out is part of their charm and a certainly respectable choice, playing to their talents and defining their sound, but it comes at the cost of musical variation.
Issa has explained The Underachievers eschew featuring other rappers in order to create their own sound and style, but this album features fewer hooks and choruses than their debut mixtape Indigoism.
Tracks like “Chrysalis,” “Nebulous” and “Ethereal” all feature the two MCs swapping straight verses in rapid-fire, duel-like fashion. The more conventional songs, like “Caprice,” show that they can write catchy lines as well; the “knock ’em, knock ’em, knock ’em” hook may be the single greatest of 2014.
Thematically, they stick to their bread-and-butter. The tracks each push a uniquely positive (for AK, “happiness and love be the key to the real goal”) and overwhelmingly intellectual message.
The subject of being high, on psychoactive substances but also thinking, operating and existing on a higher plane of existence, carries over from their first project: on “Quietscent,” AK reminisces over when he “popped a tab and captured a true religion,” and exhorts us all to “see with your heart, not with your optics.” Motifs of mysticism and references to Egypt and ancient Egyptian culture (Kemetism is name-checked on “Caprice”) abound as well. Certainly, they also throw in the traditional braggadocio of true New York rappers, and constantly refer to the Beast Coast movement they’re spearheading.
This, by the way, is an easy way to place them in the context of east coast hip-hop of the 2010s. The Underachievers blend the hazy, psychedelic style (in both sound and drug content) of Flatbush ZOMBiES and the 90s boom-bap revival of Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era, integrating the ideas of a new era of psychedelic spirituality and the tight lyricism of classic New York hip-hop. And in classic New York fashion, AK throws a jab at Kendrick on “Ethereal” with the line “Silly motherfuckers think they runnin’ shit, king of New York talk / you’re all soft.”
Issa Gold and AK are talented MCs, but the beats they choose are more polarizing. On Indigoism they ranged greatly, from the bright and smooth-jazzy, Nujabes-inspired “The Mahdi” to the dark and mind-warpingly woozy “Herb Shuttles;” the overall flavor has not carried over to “Cellar Door” which is musically inspired by Indigoism’s latter half.
We still have the gorgeously produced “Quietscent,” courtesy of Brainfeeder’s Lapalux, that sounds like it would fit perfectly on an HW&W project.
There are also weaker moments like Statik Selektah’s “Radiance,” where the drums and cymbals are put too up front in the mix and the high, thick, grating synth makes the listen challenging.
The opening track “Luminescence” sets a brilliantly trippy mood, using a mysterious backing melody and guitar inspired by Third-era-Portishead, and a vibe that feels like a misty Central Park night along a cobblestone footpath lit by a single street lamp.
“Ethereal” has an epic march-like melody, while Ryan Hemsworth’s “Incandescent” reflects a much more Southern and trap influenced sound, with typical hi-hats and various electronic keyboard in the background.
The future is bright for The Underachievers (“aim for solars…f*ck the skies”). I like reading “Cellar Door” by its subtitle, “Terminus Ut Exordium,” which essentially translates to “the end of the beginning.”
The Underachievers are lurking at the top of the proverbial underground, done with establishing themselves, and are tapping at your cellar door. Maybe they’re knocking on their way up, ready for the limelight, or maybe they’re grabbing your attention to get you to explore the vast ethereal metropolis they’re building just underneath the surface. Either way, the cellar door is going to be swinging wide open.