When The Underachievers released Indigoism in early 2013, I was in Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer. I had no background on the duo (made up of Brooklyn natives AK and Issa Gold), other than the hype and love that Flatbush Zombies were vocalizing via social media outlets. The mixtape was lengthy and it took me over a month to absorb, but when it finally hit, it hit hard. I spent (seemingly) months listening to nothing else. “Root of All Evil” is still my jam and if you’re wondering, it sounds outstanding chopped and screwed.
Following the beloved Indigoism, they took the Lex Luger path with Lords of Flatbush, an evident testament to the public that two well-educated mushroom fiends can make trap music full of insightful words and “free your mind” messages. It was a cool concept, but it still lacked the powerful production that I devoured so greedily on Indigoism. Their debut full-length, Cellar Door: Terminus U Exordium (Latin phrase meaning “The End of the Beginning”), is more of the latter than the former. More bass and less soul.
The Underachievers are trying to provide a light for a dark era, for a group of people struggling to find their way amongst the clutter and the mayhem. I get it. But with Cellar Door, we get plenty of aggression and desire for the common man to escape these mental prisons, though a large amount of the fast-paced lyricism seems preachy without providing assistance or outlets to escape a monotonous routine.
“I’m sipping from the winner’s cup….y’all suckers focused on the TV, bruh/ While I live out my dreams, why don’t you go out?”
The words come and go too fast for even the RapGenius scholars to snag on first listen. A meaningful message can be packed in one bar, but another one is sure to follow. This is dense, dense, hip-hop.
Cellar Door is all the more fascinating with the realization that both members released solo EPs less than a month before their group’s debut dropped. AK came through with Blessings in the Gray, nine tracks of strong lyricism and spot-on production. Ignorvnce and Unkkknown (both of which I was unfamiliar) provide a sprawling backdrop for one of my favorite flows in hip-hop. “Times Change” is gorgeous. Meanwhile, Issa Gold released Conversations with a Butterfly, an eight-piece boom bap autobiographical opera that excels through many angles. It is jazzy, funky, and full of personality. “September 5.” Bruh.
As a result, it comes as a shock that the majority of Cellar Door overwhelms rather than entertains. The talent is there, but the ambition is past the ceiling, lost in the clouds of half-achieved ideas and illuminated cadence techniques. Flow switch ups, back-and-forth verses—it’s all impressive and original, but the lyrics are very heavy and tightly packed. Like I said, dense. When the two slow down, it pays off. One of the standouts, for example, is “Nebulous,” produced by Two Fresh. It’s slightly more relaxed and less exhausting, but still standoffish and finger pointy. “Wish he could do it how we do it, nigga read a book. Switch it up, fuck being the same, my nigga, live it up. No one gon’ hold your head through the pain, you gotta live it up.” While Indigoism was, “Come here, let me coach you,” Cellar Door is, “I’m done holding your hand, get back to me when you’re a changed man.” I guess you could argue that the truth hurts, but there’s a big difference between being a prophet (Yasiin Bey) and lecturing your audience (Brother Ali).
The final two tracks stand out and feel as though they should be on separate projects. They are lovely, mystical, powerful creations. “Felicity,” my favorite track on Cellar Door, comes with help from The Ruby Suns. It is here where Issa Gold finds his beautiful message, one he has been shouting all along: “I’m here just to pave the way for the ones walkin’ the road but don’t know where it’s safe/ For the ones livin’ like slaves but they ain’t know they need change.”
Meanwhile, the closer, “Amorphous,” features help from Portugal. The Man. These two final tracks—they also featured production from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.’s Nick León—perfectly display the duo’s experimentation and openness for other genres. Known for their praise of John Mayer and Fleet Foxes, it only makes sense that they’ve tapped into the psychedelic indie rock scene (one band from Alaska, the other from New Zealand) for their debut full-length.
Like all of the past Underachievers projects, the production is on point. Well-known acts Statik Selektah, Ryan Hemsworth, and Supreme Cuts all make appearances. Statik even strays from his signature sound to make something more futuristic and experimental for his third-eyed clients on the mindblender “Radiance.” Lesser known acts like Death Tarot help fill the gaps. “Chrysalis” sounds like something Erick Arc Elliott might create for the Zombies.
I know this review has been all over the place, and for as many parts as I critique, there are equally as many parts that I adore. Maybe I need to give it a month before properly writing something, but as it is now, Cellar Door is aggressive, abstract, and full of chakra alignment about paving destinies and negative talking heads that leave the listener flabbergasted rather than smoking and vibing. The Underachievers stay loyal to their city, shouting out Flatbush as they smoke weed and eat hallucinogenic handfuls, but I’m not sure what they set out to do when they opened Cellar Door and attempted to blend higher learning with street trap. If the title is any consolation, the end of the beginning marks a new path for a seemingly limitless duo still trying to guide and bounce at the same time.
3 out of 5
You can buy Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium here.