The Cunninlynguists were pioneers in creating a “southernunderground” that made room for Little Brother and B.o.B. alike. Almost a decade since they started releasing albums, the Kentucky-Georgia outfit still remains underlooked and extremely consistent in making music that represents its region with substance and soul. Strange Journey: Volume Two may seem like a short-run title or compilation, but rather the release is the trio’s sixth, and a body of work that both upholds the Lynguists‘ conventions as well as plays into the styles and trends of 2009.

“Imperial” is an appropriate starting point for the album. Boasting one of the only retail appearances to date from unsigned titan Freddie Gibbs, the song embodies the kind of lane that Kno and Deacon The Villian invented. The song has a brilliant, hickory-smoked groove courtesy of Kno, while Gibbs steps in to make the song street stuck – not in the traditional New York or Los Angeles since, but unique to the smaller cities of the midwest and southeast regions of the country. Named after the 1973 Chrysler Imperial (which appears on the album cover), the song is one of the best collaborations of 2009. As the case with “Imperial,” guests have long been a major point of appeal to Cunninlynguists projects, dating back to Will Rap For Food. “Running Wild” sounds so natural that E-40 should consider more naturalized production for his own releases. Just as the case with the group’s biggest hit to date, “Seasons,” each emcee from Natti to Deacon to 40 Water to Evidence makes the track their own. The subject matter is cohesive, even if the deliveries and backgrounds of the rappers aren’t. “Close Your Eyes” is another show-stopper. Geologic from Blue Scholars proves to be one of the most interesting guests, as he shares his deep love of rhyming on stage, despite limited accolades and monetary returns. Although the ‘Lynguists lack the melancholy this time around, their ability to transmit honesty and humanity in sounds and words have always made them endure as a group. Nearly 10 years after “Missing Children,” songs like “Close Your Eyes” give fans something they can feel and relate to, no matter age, race, sex, or class.

Although the guests have always given their album mass appeal, Deacon and Kno are the core of the group. Kno‘s production caters to both fans of chipmunk Soul, as well as deft, ’90s New York loop-digging. Deacon has a southern gentleman’s charm, as he has long been capable of discussing sophisticated topics on records that still bump in the trunk. Third member Natti continues to grow in his comfort with the group. His drawl and and removed focus on traditional Rap values make the Cunninlynguists sound more accessible to the Dungeon Family fans. At this moment in time, the group chemistry seems its best yet – something that was called into question five years ago when Natti replaced Mr. SOS. Like a quarterback with two distinct receivers, Kno has his emcee and his rapper to pass to, making each track dynamic and unlimited by style or tempo.

Strange Journey: Volume Two is not without its far-reaching moments.”The W.W.K.Y.A. Tour” feels like an obligatory QN5 posse cut, with Substantial and Extended Fam. Although the emceeing is superior, the sillier tone of the song may belong on a typical journey, but not this one. Presented to the listener early, we can’t always get the message that the Cunninlynguists are to be taken seriously. This mistake is not a new one to the group, and like Masta Ace‘s ties to the Juice Crew, some fans expect substance to give way to lyricism based on association. The skits also make the album appear lighter than it is. The Cunninlynguists entered this game with a strong sense of humor (apparent in their name), but their gift is not their comedy, but their intricate realism.

Easily mistake for a mixtape or carry-over release by its title, Strange Journey: Volume Two is one of the best sleepers of 2009. Natti has arrived as an emcee that has the delivery the streets want. Deacon remains a master of honest rhymes and complex topics, perfectly matched by Kno‘s amazingly soulful beats. Every guest on this project is well-chosen, and this album transcends both “southern” and “underground” for a group that deserves to be embraced tighter by a culture they so obviously uphold.