I can’t be the only one who feels that hip-hop hasn’t exactly had a banner year, am I?
Obviously I’m not saying it’s a bad year – we got solid records from Kendrick and Joey Bada$$, and that Quelle Chris record was an underappreciated gem, but at the same time, it’s kind of telling that my favourite rap record thus far in 2017 has come from an album that was surprise early-released on Christmas of 2016, that being Run The Jewels – and yes, I’m going to count it as a 2017 release for year-end list purposes, just deal with it.
But maybe it’s just the hip-hop I’ve covered in the first half of 2017, but there’s been a lot of underwhelming to flat out crap records that I’ve covered, and I’d like to think I’m not missing anything big here out of the mainstream or underground. So you can bet I was happy that there was a new record from The Underachievers coming up my schedule to cover, seemingly with little-to-no actual buzz! And that kind of blows my mind: sure, I wasn’t really crazy about that It Happened In Flatbush mixtape last year, but Evermore: The Art Of Duality was a really damn solid sophomore album that tackles big ideas with really solid bars and some fascinating dualistic production, so I was hoping that Renaissance might be the shot of life hip-hop has needed in 2017 – was I right?
Hmm… okay, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting, at least not in its entirety and especially not after Evermore: The Art of Duality. Some folks have described this as more of a mixtape than a cohesive project – and I can definitely hear that in both the shorter track lengths and much more scattered track ordering – but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, considering both of these two can rap their asses off. Unfortunately for as scattershot as this project can feel, it also feels a little sloppier – in other words, very much feeling like a continuation of that 2015 project except with less impact.
And what frustrates me about this is that when it comes to the wordplay and style of this brand of hip-hop, both sides of their duality are right up my alley. The two most obvious comparisons for me on this project are Joey Bada$$ and Denzel Curry, not just because of overlapping producers but also a similar sort of balance between hard-edged hedonism and conscious commentary, only further accentuated by the clear, well-articulated flows that feel like they could go on for miles. I will say that there are points where I feel like Issa Gold isn’t quite bringing the same visceral intensity as he has on previous projects – I tend to prefer more of AK’s bars overall on this project – but that’s really a general observation. Hell, the entire album, especially in its midsection doesn’t quite have the same bite, especially when it starts to drift towards entirely too much weed and brand names to be all that interesting for me, even despite flows and wordplay that connect… for the most part. Maybe it’s because some of the flows can feel a little more languid, but I’m hearing a fair few more forced or flubbed rhymes on this project, and considering how much they are looking to smack down mumble rappers for being boring trend-followers to be pitied than anything else, they should not be this easy to spot.
And this ties back into probably my biggest issue with this album as a whole, a severe lack of focus within songs. Let’s face it, The Underachievers have always felt a little scattershot in their writing in between bragging, weed and sex references, and hints of deeper insight and social commentary, but nowhere does it feel more messy than it does here – kind of ironic, considering a lack of defined focus is more often than not my biggest complaint about mumble rappers too. And while of course I’d prefer this, I think the biggest reason why this project underperforms in comparison with Joey Bada$$ or Denzel Curry is that lack of clear ideas holding individual songs together – less of an issue when it comes to hedonistic rambling or assertions of dominance, but certainly distracting when you have a couplet calling for the CIA to assassinate the current US president! And while I won’t deny I appreciate the moments when AK gets a little more introspective to reflect on broken systems and systemic racism, with the songs feeling all the more cluttered it can make juxtaposing those thoughts against Issa’s more violent or hedonistic verses feel a bit disingenuous. And what gets all the more frustrating is that there are points where they do showcase some actual storytelling that reflects more focus and ambition – the crime on Issa’s verse of ‘Break The System’ is a great example, with the painful dramatic conclusion of a son locked in the same cell as his father – but they are few and far between, and more often than not I find myself gravitating to the songs that are more straightforward trap-flavoured barfests, like ‘Crescendo’ or ‘Cobra Clutch’.
But this takes us to the other issue: for as much as I like a lot of this production, full of prominent horns, sharp fragments of guitar and bass, piano balancing against cooler, wiry synths and noisy percussion, be it boombap or trap, most of it is supporting songs that can feel undercooked or lacking the structure or progression to hit harder. For a fifteen track release that only hits forty minutes, a full third of the songs don’t reach three minutes, and gives you the impression that with a little more focus and time these songs could have been expanded or refined into something heavier or at least more developed with tighter hooks. I actually really enjoyed when singer Mello showed up for ‘Saint Paul’ and ‘Break The System’, but in both cases she feels under-utilized, and that’s before we even touch on the odd discrepancies in volume levels in the production between tracks like with ‘Eyes Wide Open’ and ‘Head Right’, which don’t help the songs feel less fragmented. And it’s such a little thing to nitpick, but it reflects the odd feeling that this project just wasn’t as refined or focused as it could have been – which is a damn shame because on top of liking the flows, I really like a lot of this production! The echoing guitars on ‘Eyes Wide Open’, the noisier drums on ‘Break The System’, the jazzy touches on ‘Kiss The Sky’ and ‘Different Worlds’ courtesy of the prominent sax, the bass-heavy trap knock of ‘Crescendo’ courtesy of Ronny J who with this and his work with Denzel Curry really is a guy I need to watch for more, to the lingering guitars and bass against the cawing on ‘Phoenix Feathers’. The grooves are potent, I appreciate the blend of textures, and I’m not even about to complain about balancing more 90s tones against modern trap, it feels appropriately modern, but with rare exception I wouldn’t say many help these songs stand out as distinctive, especially as bars can start to run together.
So overall… look, I like this album, this is an easy record for me to put on and enjoy, but I also will admit a little disappointment. Issa Gold and AK are such technically skilled rappers who pick great beats that I wish they’d have given this project the consideration and focus to make individual songs stand out with more focused themes and ideas. This, on the other hand, can’t help but feel a little slapdash and probably should have been dropped as a mixtape, given its lack of internal focus, if only to get a little more leeway as a collection of sharp but directionless bars. I could go on about how I’m still not wild about how many times they end up taking your girlfriend or wife, or how the weed rap angle is starting to feel played out, even if the vibes are decent, but really, I’m giving this a light 7/10 and a recommendation, but more for Underachievers fans, or those who are looking for a pretty chill project of solid enough wordplay that doesn’t demand a lot of attention. In other words, I’m not entirely surprised now that this has flown under many people’s radar, but if you’re curious, it is still worth a listen all the same.