Over the last couple of years, New York’s resurgent rap underground has hit upon a couple of winning strategies to find relevance: Be a weirdo, and pretend the ’90s never ended. Those two principles unite a bunch of New Yorkers who otherwise have nothing much in common: A$AP Rocky’s runway-ready DJ Screw homages, Action Bronson’s dorked-out libertine twist on Wu-Tang’s mystic stomp, Joey Bada$$’s hermetic and almost Tourettic dedication to the grimy boom-bap that was at its peak in 1995, the year he was born. And we must now credit the Underachievers, a young Brooklyn duo now affiliated with Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder crew, with figuring out a novel version of that same tactic. Rather than weirding up some revered offshoot of ’90s rap, they’ve pulled inspiration from a form of rap that was already pretty weird in the ’90s. On their new Indigoism mixtape, I hear bits of Souls Of Mischief and the Jungle Brothers, but it springs most directly from an antic strain of late-’90s backpack-rap. Once upon a time, groups like the Outsidaz and the Arsonists and mid-period Heltah Skeltah rapped frantically over bloopy circus beats and head-blown horn loops. I haven’t thought much about that stuff lately, but now it’s suddenly back in the form of a pair of hungry young stoners, and I’m happy to remember how much I liked it, how good it still sounds when somebody does it right. The Underachievers do it great.
The Underachievers are Issa Dash and Ak, two young Flatbush rappers distinguishable mostly from the grain of their voices. They both like to rap about Egyptology, psychedelics, clouds of weed smoke, but also about getting money and smacking idiots in the head. They frequently claim “Beast Coast,” a loose New York-based movement of rappers, many of whom I mentioned in that first paragraph but none of whom ever talk about it as much as the Underachievers. More importantly, both Underachievers let words out in dizzy, energetic cascades, showing levels of breath control that not too many of their peers bother with. They both use their voices to push the beats around, playing with them like cats with dangly toys.
And those beats, for the most part, are incredible. Despite their FlyLo connection, they aren’t dealing with astral acid-jazz computer-farts here. Instead, this is lightly tweaked boom-bap. Sometimes, ethereal piano loops or fluttering horns will drift through the tracks, but the drums always snap hard. And other times, the tracks jump around just as anxiously as the rappers’ voices, as with the madcap broken-music-box bleeps of opener “Philanthropist” or dizzy twinkles of “Herb Shuttles.” Sometimes, as on closer, “Play Your Part,” they’re just making out-and-out bangers, going in over angry Themerins and berserk MPC thuds. Somehow, it all hangs together; as much as the tracks change, we’re always looking at lush thumps that never sacrifice texture for propulsion or vice-versa. Looking at the production credits, the Underachievers get their tracks from a number of different sources, and they’re all people I’ve never heard of before. So it’s striking and impressive that these two have managed to find a complete aesthetic by grabbing from whatever was available to them.
I keep thinking I’m sick of ’90s-style New York Tumblr-rap types, and I keep being proven wrong. Because like Joey Bada$$ or their buddies in Flatbush Zombies, the Underachievers have a simple forward energy that always makes their revivalism feel fresh and tangible. As rappers, they’re technical marvels who still come off like scabby young punks. They don’t project much in the way of starpower, and I almost certainly wouldn’t recognize either one on the street, but they haven’t let that stop them from making exciting music. I don’t know whether Indigoism is the start of something special or if it’s just a fun one-off rap album. But either way, it’s been dominating my iTunes over the past week. It’s worth getting lost in.
Download Indigoism here.