July 31, 2014

Max Bell fixes the spelling on suicide notes

The Underachievers have long been my favorite members of Gotham’s new guard. Pro Era poorly paint by numbers laid in the ‘90s and I have yet to understand the adulation. A$AP Mob have a number of songs I enjoy, but much of their work (solo and collective) doesn’t merit repeat spins in the way that Indigoism and Lords of Flatbush do. Flatbush Zombies are a very close second, the closest analogue to The Underachievers because of their location, skills, and predilection for mind-altering psychedelics.

Still, The Underachievers have the most potent blend of lyrical ability, charisma, and drugged out third-eye philosophy. Their lifted trip is, in theory, aimed at attaining some semblance of spiritual and/or intellectual enlightenment. I identify with the end, the means, and the way they render both over beats that deftly straddle the line between the nostalgic and the modern (e.g. “The Mahdi”). Of the duo, AK is the most technically sound. And the little Issa Gold lacks in chops, he makes up for in ardor. Like many heralded duos, rap or otherwise, they bring out the best in one another while masking their respective shortcomings.

Conversations with a Butterfly, which dropped early this week, is Gold’s first solo mixtape. Here the third-eye rhetoric is traded for rhymes about he and his ‘butterfly.’ Though Gold doesn’t stray far from standard avowals of affection, he does an admirable job of delivering an authentic depiction of their tumultuous relationship.

“Lions Can’t Fly” deals with Gold’s efforts to hold on to the woman he knew before Brainfeeder and tours overseas, whereas “Pesadillas” finds him struggling to remain committed to her given his age and the hordes of opportunistic women that inevitably surround those with newfound success. Regardless of the predicament he relays on each track, Gold is honest and open. His flaws and insecurities are on front street, but the saccharine is nowhere in sight.

Given the content, the production is much softer than any previous Underachievers efforts. The blues guitar driven “Musical Chairs” is followed by “Phalipacoin,” which combines a smooth, mellow bass line with banging drums and soft choral cooing. “September 5” tempers the percussive clink characteristic of hard-nosed N.Y. raps of old with subdued chords and smooth sax. Then there’s the Thundercat produced “Lions Can’t Fly,” which sounds like bass centric, avant-garde jazz broadcast from the Tron universe. That Gold does his best to rap over a suite like this bodes well for the future.

Though Conversations with a Butterfly is short (under 30 minutes), this is unfortunately the first Underachiever’s project that wears a bit thin on repeat listens. Gold retains the same conviction that makes him so charismatic alongside AK, but the recurring problems with his girl can be monotonous. And there are times where platitudes prove a crutch. Really, relationship rap is just a difficult thing to do well, especially over the course of several songs.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, Gold’s solo mixtape serves as a welcome prelude to The Underachievers’ Brainfeeder debut, Cellar Door: Terminus Ut Exordium, which drops August 12th. Ideally, his chemistry with AK will remain as strong as its always been.

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