Over two years ago, I published a piece regarding the debut album from the CunninLynguists, a Southern act made up of Deacon the Villain and Kno. It was expected that the post was going to preclude a series of write-ups for the rest of their ever-growing catalog, as is every post for an artist or group that has never appeared on the pages of HHID before. So, in keeping with the way things tend to go on here, I'm just now getting to their second album, Southernunderground, which isn't even the one you guys want to know my thoughts about. Such is life.
While recording Southernunderground, Kno and Deacon added a third member to the crew, rapper Mr. S.O.S. The inclusion of a third member afforded Kno the opportunity to focus on his beats to a greater degree than on their debut, Will Rap For Food, although he still makes plenty of vocal appearances on here. For their part, Deacon and S.O.S. hold up their end of the bargain, only occasionally sharing screen time with outside guests in an effort to get their shared viewpoints across.
I've got ten more of these things to write this week. Not every one will have a long-ass intro. Sorry.
An instrumental rap album intro provided by Kno. The music was pleasant enough, but I wasn't a fan of the sped-up, high-pitched vocal samples woven throughout, as it hurt my ears and has now replaced the whale in my nightmares. Moving on...
The first actual song on Southernunderground is its title track, with the production handled by Domingo so that Kno can rhyme alongside Deacon and Mr. S.O.S. without worrying. The trio trade bars for about two straight minutes without the aid of any chorus (until the end, I suppose, when Domingo works in a sound bite from Andre 3000), and their imagery grows increasingly goofier as each artist takes the microphone back. All three acquit themselves well on this comeback song of sorts, but the one line that stands out is Kno's comment regarding his praying to an Eminem shrine, mainly because, in that moment, I was actually thinking, “Man, he really sounds like Marshall Mathers right now”. As I'm sure you two did when you first heard this, too.
3. THE SOUTH
Mr. S.O.S. and Deacon the Villain bounce their respective perceptions of what they feel make up the Southern part of the United States off of one another with entertaining-enough results. Kno's beat approaches Jurassic 5-levels of whimsy, where the music's general optimism clashes with some of the darker threads S.O.S. and Deacon start to unravel, which threw me off a bit, but overall, "The South" isn't bad. Still, you would be forgiven if you chose to skip straight to the next track.
4. LOVE AIN'T (FEAT. TONEDEFF)
I found this one to be more entertaining today than I did when I first heard it. Kno's beat acts only as the vehicle for three verses (one each from Deacon, Kno, and guest star Tonedeff) that dive headfirst into trying to decipher what love should and should not be; since most rappers are scared shitless to even admit that love is an emotion that exists, the fact that the CunninLynguists chose to tackle the topic already earns them points toward a free sandwich or something. Tonedeff's opening salvo is pretty fucking dense, like a short story being read to you at twelve times the normal speed, so you may feel compelled to move on before Deacon and Kno even enter the picture: I urge you two to stick with it. Try it. You'll like it.
Speaking of what love is and isn't, Mr. S.O.S. handles "Rain" for dolo, growing increasingly angrier at the fact that his fiance cheated on him. This is actually some pretty powerful stuff: you can hear the desperation, confusion, and, yes, anger in his voice as the two verses pass, especially during the second half of the track, when the piano-laced instrumental is traded out for something a bit more aggressive and face-meltingly confounding (but in a good way). Producer Kno only lets up during the "hook", which threatens to undermine everything by way of sheer annoyance, but the rest of this song was really fucking good.
6. DOIN' ALRIGHT
The sound of rain, a holdover from the previous track, turns the overall mood of "Doin' Alright" into one of melancholy, even though Kno's beat does its damnedest to sound hopeful. Mr. S.O.S. and Deacon helpfully explain that they both feel life is going great is they wake up every morning alive and breathing. Which is fine and all, but the sentiment feels forced: it's almost as though the CunninLynguists felt that their audience wasn't quite ready for any darker material after "Rain". This wasn't bad, but it's not my bag.
7. INTERLUDE 1
An instrumental interlude that follows the same blueprint as the intro, except the sped-up, high-pitched vocal sample doesn't sound nearly as intrusive, and Kno's production work is fucking dope. Nice!
8. OLD SCHOOL
This one is goofy, but fun. Deacon, Kno, and S.O.S. all provide a revisionist history lesson, inserting themselves into Biblical tales, the Old West, Renaissance times, and others in order to spread their hip hop influences, with each rapper (tackling four bars at a time) trying to one-up the last in pure silliness alone. Only the scratched-in vocal samples during the hook manage to keep the track grounded onto an album that also produced the likes of "Rain". A trifle, but an entertaining one. Just think of it as a brief respite from the heavier material on Southernunderground, albeit one that doesn't seem quite as forced as "Doin' Alright".
9. SEASONS (FEAT. MASTA ACE)
A kind-of brilliant concept track about four different eras of our chosen genre, each one relating to one of the four seasons. Guest star Masta Ace tackles the old school, which is fairly appropriate considering that he's Masta fucking Ace and had been rhyming for roughly ninety-seven years, while Deacon ushers in the classics of the early 1990s. After a pretty weak hook that still doesn't detract from the overall RJD2-produced track, Kno and S.O.S. run through how the deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. signaled the beginning of the Shiny Suit Era and hip hop's current lame-ass state of affaire, respectively. It's interesting to note that the second half of the song (composed of autumn and winter) will probably piss you off merely because Kno and S.O.S. are just reporting facts.
10. NASTY FILTHY (FEAT. SUPASTITION & CASHMERE THE PRO)
"It's time to take real hip hop back! It can't be that hard!", the previous song may have you thinking. Well, the CunninLynguists had anticipated those well-intentioned thoughts and have responded to you, in song form, on "Nasty Filthy", which is made up of four separate points of view on how difficult (and expensive) it is to be an underground rapper these days. Guest stars Cashmere the Pro and Supastition (who is no longer in the music business, giving this track a depressing-as-shit coda) lend verses to Kno's simple beat, and, alongside S.O.S. and Deacon, they explain away essentially every single reason why any rational-minded person would ever want to pick up the mic as a profession. And yet, the song wasn't actually discouraging.
11. FALLING DOWN
A six-minute-plus exercise, taking its inspiration from the Joel Schumacher-directed Michael Douglas vehicle of the same name, that features Deacon, S.O.S. and Kno all (separately) being pushed to their brink and then jumping off the cliff into borderline insanity. It's not a bad song by any means (in fact, it's quite enjoyable), but I felt that all three of the individual narratives featured people that were already halfway losing their shit anyway, so it takes hardly any effort to set them off. That said, the little details in the verses are incredible, and Kno's apparent love for mainstream rap culminates in (SPOILER ALERT!) a shooting in a toy store while he screams out, "Trick luh da kids!" (taken from the Trick Daddy and Cee-Lo collaboration "In Da Wind"), which made me laugh, since hip hop suffers from a deficiency of references to Trick Daddy Dollars.
12. SUNRISE / SUNSET
After "Falling Down", the only real way to recover is by letting Deacon the Villain have his own song, apparently. "Sunrise / Sunset" contains two verses of Deacon spouting vaguely positive and encouraging messages while admitting that he frequently falls into his old traps (his line about finding "a liquor bottle to hollow" is but an example of how descriptive he can be while being stingy with his words), but the instrumental is too subdued for anyone to take any of this seriously. Moving on...
13. INTERLUDE 2
Probably the weakest instrumental interlude on Southernunderground, and it still sounds pretty fucking good. How is that possible?
14. APPRECIATION (REMIX) (FEAT. CASHMERE THE PRO)
Even though this song (this remixed version, anyway) is nearly ten years old, the twist at the end of guest star Cashmere's first verse hits hard, even if you've heard it hundreds of times before. His contribution is actually kind of perfect: during his brief narrative, he keeps the audience intrigued with thoughts and feelings that everyone can relate to, and when the other shoe drops (I won't spoil it here, because I want the newbies to actually hear it for themselves, and I'd appreciate it if you two didn't spoil it in the comments, either), you immediately understand what the song is supposed to be about, without the aid of the hook, which still wasn't bad. And even though the surprise has already been revealed by then, Deacon closes out the track with a powerful verse of his own. God damn this was good.
15. DYING NATION
After a goofy George W. Bush sound bite that will leave you in shock that, yes, that guy was actually once the leader of the free world for eight fucking years, S.O.S., Deacon, and Kno take on America herself, as the country doesn't hold the same values and beliefs as it once did. This wasn't a bad track: in fact, Kno's instrumental was quite catchy. But any song programmed after "Appreciation (Remix)" was destined to suffer, and "Dying Nation" (which is weird to listen to after the last presidential debate, by the way) isn't able to overcome that obstacle.
As an extension (of sorts) of the previous track, Southernunderground ends with Kno's instrumental mediation on the topic of war, managing to get his point across in as melodic a fashion as humanly possible. This sounded so goddamn pleasant that I actually found the Prodigy vocal sample (from Mobb Deep's early classic "Survival Of The Fittest") to be a jarring distraction from the overall mood. Still, this was enjoyable as hell. A fantastic way to end the evening.
FINAL THOUGHTS: With Southernunderground, the CunninLynguists extended their brand (as small as it was at the time) while providing a listening experience consistent with that of their debut. Which is all a really fucking boring way to say that it's really fucking good. Kno and Deacon bring out the best in one another, both lyrically and musically, and even with the addition of Mr. S.O.S. to the proceedings, the guys don't miss a step. Southernunderground surpasses expectations that hip hop heads in 2003 had regarding what a rap album originating from the South was "supposed" to sound like, and it remains one of the more accessible underground albums of its time. Not every track holds up, but the ones that do (and there are many) are deserving of a much wider audience than it originally received.
BUY OR BURN? By all means, buy this shit. In fact, in 2009 the CunninLynguists actually re-released Southernunderground as a double-disc set, with the second disc containing the project's instrumentals and even a bonus song. There. They just made your decision a lot easier to make.
BEST TRACKS: "Appreciation (Remix)"; "Seasons"; "War"; "Falling Down"; "Rain"; "Nasty Filthy"; "Love Ain't"