Wednesday, October 7, 2015

album review: 'evermore: the art of duality' by the underachievers

Goddamn it, I'm kicking myself for this one.

See, I've actually heard about this duo before when I started getting requests last year, and given the fall is always an overloaded time for album releases, I skipped over them. And given their debut album was getting solid but not exceptional reviews, I figured I'd put them on the backburner and eventually I just never got around to covering them. So when they announced their sophomore album this year, I figured I might as well check in on that debut...

And wow. As I said, I'm exasperated with myself that I let AK and Issa Gold get past me, because this is the sort of smart, articulate, hard-hitting hip-hop I really enjoy. Breakneck, multisyllabic flows that remind more than a bit of Bone Thugz-N-Harmony, great chemistry, solid psychedelic leanings in the wordplay that have only become better articulated, they broke through with the star-making Indigoism mixtape in 2013 and the better written and tighter but slightly less refined Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium in 2014. I'm not sure whether it would have been enough to knock either into my favourites list, but they definitely would have been contenders.

And as such, I definitely had some interest in their sophomore release Evermore: The Art Of Duality - even though at fifteen tracks this looked to be an exhaustingly dense listen. Which I think even they realized, because from the album art to the track listening, they looked to be segregating this record into two distinctive parts, one light, one dark. But regardless, how did the album turn out?

Well, unsurprisingly it turned out pretty damn well, because Evermore: The Art Of Duality is an improvement on their debut across the board, a smarter, more articulate, better produced record that has more variety in flows, instrumentation, and even content - and for a duo that can occasionally write themselves into a corner with pseudo-spiritual drug rambling with a bit of a conscious edge, that's saying something. I'm not saying it's perfect - in fact, the more I've listened through this record the more I'm quite certain that The Underachievers have a ton of potential they still should unlock - but they're definitely on the right path and can bring a fantastic balance to the table in modern hip-hop.

And here's the funny thing: if you're familiar with AK and Issa Gold here, you're not going to be surprised by what you get on this album. From a technical rapping perspective, these guys hit a real sweet spot for me because they have well-structured and layered flows that just seem to go on for days and yet don't get monotonous. Sure, it's dense and you're going to need a good six or seven listens to pick up everything they say, but they bring an incredibly potent balance between solidly interconnected lyricism and fist-pumping hooks, adding them to the list of reasons why the mainstream really can't use it as an excuse. And while I've made the Bone Thugz comparison before, both Issa and AK switch things up enough to show versatility I wasn't expecting, from the hard-edged aggression that Issa brought on 'Take Your Place' that I wouldn't expect from the usually more emotive rapper to the Childish Gambino-esque flow AK dropped on 'Brooklyn Way' that showed he could move beyond harsher material. And while there are a few flubbed rhymes - the two I noticed were on 'Brooklyn Way' and 'Generation Z' - for the most part the multisyllabic structure makes it so easy for the bars to just roll over you effortlessly.

And it helps the production can support that. This is where the duality of this album manifests the most, because the first half is lighter, breezier, more typical of 'conscious' hip-hop while the back half is trap-infused, bass-heavy bangers - and yet in both cases the melodies are sound and there's plenty of diverse instrumentation to keep the momentum moving. On the brighter side, I dug the acoustic guitars groove on 'Shine All Gold', the humid melodic thrums that led into the glossier textures on 'Brooklyn Way' and 'Illusions' as the pianos support the textured percussion, and even the saxophone that drives the melody on the old-school vibe of 'The Dualist' that I could swear might have been sampled from Kenny G and yet proved surprisingly infectious. And yet on the other side The Underachievers prove plenty capable of hopping on some hard-edge bangers with more of an outright symphonic swell like on 'Take Your Place' or 'Generation Z' that manage to pull it off without sounding cheesy or overstated - mostly because the strings and synths still have that rough edge and the trap percussion remains hard-hitting. I won't say that all of the instrumentation works - 'Star Signs' and 'Allusions' honestly felt a little busy, and that offkilter synth and strings melody of 'Moon Shot' just struck an odd note for me, pushed the dissonance a little too hard, but when you follow it with the great futuristic and spacey synths on songs like 'Stay The Same', it's hard to complain. Part of that is the production itself - not only the transitions damn near seamless, especially at the shift towards darkness at the midpoint, but they all maintain that dank, humid atmosphere where the contact high is palpable.

And that takes us to the lyrics, and I'll say it: Wiz Khalifa, this is what weed rap should sound like. Not that you're so stoned you can't string words together but that it pushes you to ascend to a higher plane. That evolution, the drive to constantly rise above and break out of the toxic established ways built by a broken system underscores the first half of this album, and it's a natural fit on how much this record stresses the underlying dualities, both between its members and their approach to rap. AK grew up rougher and found drugs on the streets, Issa went to good schools and found prescriptions drugs that came back with him to the hood. Both are aware that they could cater to their darker instincts to win mainstream audiences, and yet they chose to stick to a lighter road... all the while making sure to stress that darker side doesn't exactly go away. I wouldn't even say it's a struggle between good and evil so much between physical and spiritual, and The Underachievers work that balance from their analysis of pop culture and reality television to black culture itself. And what really sticks out is the atmosphere of hope - both men came from depression rooted in different sources, but managed through hard work and perseverance, when no easy help was coming, to find their fortune, and they push that message towards the youth pretty damn well. Of course, they're also aware that there needs to be some teeth to it, which is why on the much more aggressive back half of the album where they're smoking blunt and smashing their rivals, they're still preaching peace - only with a closed fist to back it up. Now this is a very tricky line to walk, and they do occasionally fall off message, like on 'Generation Z' where they're supposedly speaking to the kids... and then AK compares himself to Adolf Hitler in terms of his world-conquering skill. Or on the next song 'Allusions' which despite great flows AK goes off on the final verse about stealing and screwing your girl, which is one of the few places where women are mentioned on this album at all and the last place where it's wanted.

But it circles back to probably my biggest issue with this album as a whole, and that's a lack of focus. Sure, the bars go on for miles and the overarching album concept and ideas are solid, but for individual songs the lyrical ideas could opt to be a little more focused or refined. We get similar themes and lines through song after song - weed, enlightenment, smacking down rivals, evolving towards success - but this is an album that really could opt to tell more stories or feed into a tighter narrative, ground this album and lend it more humanity. As it is, some tracks can meander a bit, which makes this album feel a little longer than you would otherwise expect. There are songs that do have more of a unique instrumental identity, but not quite as often do the lyrics opt for the same, and I'd argue they could afford more here to crystallize their themes and create real shining moments.

But look, as a whole this record really is great. Hard-hitting lyricism, psychedelic instrumentation that can still manage to hit hard with solid production, and two MCs who have great chemistry and are displaying more versatility with every project. It's a dense record to unpack, but I definitely think it's worth it, which means I'm giving this a light 8/10 and definitely recommended, especially if you're a hip-hop fan who longs for the days of tightly written bars. Everyone else... folks, if you want all the more evidence hip-hop can still go hard and remain lyrical, this is your answer. Check this out.

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