In certain circles, The Underachievers have been unfairly critiqued as nostalgic golden era purists like their Beast Coast buddies Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era. Whether or not being such a purist is inherently such a bad thing isn’t something I’m going to get into here, but either way, it’s a criticism of The Underachievers that when made doesn’t really hold much water.
Their debut mixtape, Indigoism, remains one of the year’s finest hip-hop releases; though it took plenty of cues from the ’90s NY flag bearers they are clearly in thrall to, its beats also organically threw out elements of the South and authentically psychedelic Brainfeeder-isms to create a deceptively unique sound, (never mind the technically impeccable rapping). Now, with stopgap EP release, The Lords of Flatbush, The Underachievers aim to align themselves more closely to hip-hop’s current above-ground zeitgeist rather than the trippy underground they’ve so far inhabited with certain fellow psychedelic-loving Flatbush residents.
Given its length and positioning between two full-length projects, though, this feels a lot less like some statement of a mission change and much more like a low stakes stab at a current popular style, both for fun and just to show they can do it. Most of the beats here are produced by trap rap godhead Lex Luger, and they bang appropriately. His beats are, on the whole, solid and thunderous if not exceptional; as ever, his best moments behind the boards are those that combine those fluttering snares and punishing low end with more inventive and interesting melodies, as on exemplary opening track “Leaving Scraps”.
In general, though, Luger doesn’t operate on the level that he might for rappers that he’s more used to working with, (or who have a bigger budget). It’s all a bit by the numbers but, conversely, MCs Issa Gold and AK elevate The Lords of Flatbush to a higher level than your typical Luger-related product simply by virtue of their technical mastery. These guys can rap better than almost anyone else out at the moment, period, and they flex their muscle here just as much if not a little more than on their debut tape; Luger’s sparse, booming style gives them plenty of space to duck and weave, easing in and out of double time, switching cadences and piling rhyme schemes up to tipping point.
Lyrically, the two continue to mine pretty much identical ground to on their last tape, to mixed effects. In all honesty, it’s fun to hear rappers pepper their shit-talk with mentions of spirituality, third eyes, elevation, and a pharmacies worth of drugs, but the content here is so similar to last time around that it inarguably loses a little of its impact. It isn’t too pressing an issue; they haven’t run out of decent ways to talk about this stuff yet. But shorn of the benefit of the group’s freshness, lyrically the tape feels a little light on depth and detail. It’s extremely refreshing to hear AK, late in the tape, set out in earnest his mission, goals, and love for his family. The group could benefit from more moments like this in the future.
It could simply be, though, that this isn’t really the place for this stuff. Before the tape dropped, Issa conceded on Twitter that the depth would be coming on the album, that The Lords of Flatbush was “mostly bangers”. And as mentioned, this tape already feels more like a laid-back exercise in light boundary pushing than a purposeful next step.
This is backed up by the telling fact that the tape’s best moments are those that hue closer to the lane UA has established for themselves up until this point. The jazzy “Melody of the Free” stands out not only by virtue of its organic instrumentation but also its propulsive groove, its melody, and the reflectiveness it brings out in the MCs.
Best of all, though, is “N.A.S.A.”. The record’s closer has a beat courtesy of Flatbush Zombies‘ Erick Arc Elliott, and the spacey, atmospheric track sticks the closest to Indigoism’s warped, psychedelic classicism. It also reminds you of just what it is that these guys do so well. Its inclusion alone means that there is nothing to worry about as regards what The Underachievers have coming. The Lords of Flatbush is a more than solid hip-hop release that never really scales the heights of what came before it, but no matter. These guys are just playing right now. It’s like an exhibition match between championships; it’s low stakes practice, but throughout there are hints at what’s coming when they’re putting their all in.