Looking back at 2017 thus far, a distinct trend amongst hip hop artists has seen a significant amount of rappers take a step back from the conceptual or esoteric styles for which they have become known and instead pursue a more mainstream sound, for better or worse. Undoubtedly the most striking example of this comes courtesy of Kendrick Lamar, whose newest full-length record, DAMN., is, by his standards, a rather casual album, at least when compared to his cinematic epics of good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. In fact, it’s no stretch to be reminded of the tone shift heralded by Lamar’s latest undertaking by the third studio album from Brooklyn-born hip hop duo The Underachievers, Renaissance. Although far from a complete rebirth as the title suggests, the newest endeavour from the pair of psychedelic rappers moves their style more towards the mainstream; certainly when compared to their grand and audacious sophomore album, Evermore: The Art Of Duality, which lived up to its name by tackling some hefty, dichotomous concepts, whilst matching this with some similar contrasts in its beats and production value. To say that Renaissance feels messier than its predecessor would potentially be a bit unfair, but it undoubtedly feels more offhand and dishevelled, in a way that is relatively evocative of DAMN., albeit not quite to the same effect. Whereas Lamar’s latest album was so potent because it saw the artist truly own the more fragmented attitude that he employed, the salient shortcoming of Renaissance is the extent to which The Underachievers seemingly sacrifice some of the primary points of appeal of a record like Evermore: The Art Of Duality without replacing these with an approach that plays to their strengths in a similar fashion. Whereas, in the past, Issa Gold and AKTHESAVIOR struck a cogent balance between brazen braggadocio and a more nuanced and thoughtful lyrical outlook, much in the same vein as many of their Brooklyn-based contemporaries like Joey Bada$$ and potentially even Your Old Droog, much of their latest release leans more heavily towards the brag rap side of this duality, to a slightly detrimental extent. Likewise, on an instrumental basis, Renaissance is much more centred around boom bap bangers than any previous project from the duo, adding to the feeling that this album is tailored more towards a general audience. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of this in principle and, in fact, many of the record’s jazz-infused beats meet the level of quality established on The Underachievers’ best material. However, Renaissance most notably comes across as a slight step down when it comes to Issa and AK’s performances and overall presentation, with their rhymes not connecting as well as they have done previously, and with their boastful bars often highlighting somewhat of a disconnect, given that they so often criticise mumble rappers for similarly bombastic behaviour. What’s more, whilst both MCs prove, once again, that they can spit fast flows for days on Renaissance, the gap that has always been evident between AKTHESAVIOR and Issa Gold’s skills as rappers is most noticeable here, with Issa not as often meeting AK’s level of intensity, which augments the sense of inconsistency that is apparent across the album. Ultimately, many of The Underachievers’ previous points of success do indeed show up on Renaissance, but interspersed amongst instances wherein the duo seems to be complacent with a more rudimentary brag rap approach that doesn’t bring out the best in their abilities, making for a relatively strong, but notably uneven, release.
With the production across Renaissance covering as much ground as it does, there undoubtedly arises a question regarding whether or not the album strikes a healthy balance between styles or whether it can feel somewhat arbitrary or haphazard in its stylistic scope. For the most part, however, and especially given the success of some of the more audacious instrumental endeavours across the tracklisting, The Underachievers’ willingness to hop on a wider array of beats often brings out the best aspects of their varying personality traits and deliveries. A prime example comes in the form of the two outstanding, trap-tinged bangers of Crescendo and Cobra Clutch, both of which work in the duo’s favour when they play up their swagger and severity in tone, whilst also creating a more level playing field, in which each rapper’s contribution is impactful in its own definitive fashion. The nocturnal, wiry synth tones and bouncy, grumbling bass atop the typical trap beat on Crescendo stand out as being particularly strong in how well they bolster Issa’s buoyant bragging, especially on the hook, with, “I’m addicted to that green / Yeah, that’s a strictly veggie diet” making for one of the stickiest refrains on the record. AKTHESAVIOR’s performance, too, sees the MC accentuate the guttural grittiness of his delivery in a way that feels completely at home on top of this instrumental, which is even more true of his rapid-fire flows on Cobra Clutch, wherein a boom bap beat that’s more characteristic of The Underachievers’ pre-established style is paired with some trap-flavoured touches of scratchy melodies and buzzing bass for good effect. Even amongst the instrumentals that play more towards The Underachievers’ regular territory, the sonic palette employed will often make use of new splashes of colour that add interesting embellishments to the pair’s sound. As is to be expected from the duo, bright horns and saxes, jazzy guitar noodling and dainty piano flourishes play an integral role across much of the album’s production, and tracks such as Gotham Nights, Kiss The Sky and Phoenix Feathers put these usual elements to work as effectively as ever. However, these are far from the most stunning moments from Renaissance, with the smooth incorporation of the soulful, sensual sung vocals from Mello on Saint Paul and Break The System, as well as other interesting instrumental decisions, such as the squelchy sitar leads on In My Zone, lavishing such songs with a unique flavour and character that stands out as exceptionally striking. Indeed, the production across Renaissance is largely successful in the amount of territory it covers, but if there’s one underlying issue with these instrumentals, it’s the extent to which they work to develop the songs on which they are featured. Essentially, all too many of these tracks feel notably underwritten, and much of this comes down to the fact that, once an admittedly luxurious beat has been established, there is often little in the way of the progression or variation that would have unequivocally made many of these cuts flow far more seamlessly, on both an individual and track-by-track basis.
It must be said, though, that this sense of a lack of development across Renaissance partially comes down to The Underachievers themselves, largely resulting from the extent to which much of the record sees the pair substitute their strong storytelling talents for a great deal of bravado and weed-related raps. Of course, this is nothing new for The Underachievers, but on previous projects, the group had maintained a more cogent counterbalance between these two sides to their persona, whereas Renaissance strays a bit too far from the narrative-based songs that could have injected many of these cuts with the consistency and cohesion they needed to hit a lot harder. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the songs on which Issa and AK come through with some insightful storytelling rank amongst the best over the course of the entire tracklisting. Break The System is perhaps the prime example of this from Renaissance, with Issa’s tale being particularly powerful, as the MC depicts a young black male’s chances at a just life, as they gradually become slimmer and slimmer. As a lack of a functional family, a stable living environment, a decent education and any role models chip away at his commitment to the righteous path, he is left susceptible to being taken in by a gang and ultimately unintentionally kills a man, landing him in prison, ironically in the same cell as his father. Even songs that don’t necessarily follow a cohesive narrative, instead tackling some weighty concepts, see The Underachievers’ brandish their lyrical prowess, with the themes of self-confidence, self-expression and overcoming self-doubt on Eyes Wide Open or the meditations on gang culture and systemic racism, as well as the dichotomous religious imagery of Kiss The Sky being exceptionally compelling. It’s across some of the cocky, weed-centred bar-fests, however, such as How We Roll and Any Day, wherein both rappers’ rhymes come across as noticeably more strained, whilst their usual witticisms and wordplay become less frequent and generally less enticing. Likewise, given that poking fun at mumble rappers comes part and parcel with any project from The Underachievers, it’s easy to discern the irony that arises from the pair’s less coherent and more scattered flows and rhymes across these songs, not that they even come close to the lack of focus that many mumble rappers manage to attain, however. Nonetheless, when looking at the bigger picture, Renaissance certainly suffers as a result of The Underachievers’ decision to rely more on the braggart side of their persona, as the duo don’t follow through with enough focus to entirely justify this move, which only adds to the feeling of inconsistency across the project.
Expecting The Underachievers to simply produce another Evermore: The Art Of Duality for their third full-length album would, of course, be ludicrous, but Renaissance nevertheless signifies some significant shortfalls in the seamless coherence and overall strength of its precursor. With the group’s new record coming across as more casual as a result of its inconsistency, however, it’s certainly easy to stick it on and enjoy the diverse range of infectious instrumentals and fast flows. In this sense, despite Renaissance surely being less impressive than Evermore: The Art Of Duality on practically every basis, it could understandably be said to have more replayability as a result of it being a much less exacting or challenging listen. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a selling point for me personally, for those who simply enjoy some East Coast bangers and appreciate AKTHESAVIOR and Issa Gold’s relentless flows, Renaissance could easily be a long-lasting, go-to album for vibes. Given just how great many individual tracks from the album are as ear candy, it’s perfectly understandable to make the most of the record in this way, and it feels as if this may have even been the pair’s intention. Ultimately, even if a bit wobbly overall, Renaissance somewhat recontextualises The Underachievers’ usual stylings into a more offhand manner that, at the best of times, delivers their usual quality in a more digestible format, even if the project sacrifices a satisfying sense of cohesion as a result.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10