In 2011 Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T., born Justin Scott, released a song called “Dreamin’” on his Return Of 4Eva mixtape that perfectly encapsulates his scrappy, hard-working appeal. Over a simultaneously sleepy and spooky sample of the Brothers Of Soul’s “Dream” K.R.I.T. describes growing up listening to his Southern hip-hop heroes like UGK, Scarface, 8Ball And MJG and Three 6 Mafia while at the same time writing rhymes of his own on his baseball glove, like Holden Caulfield’s dead little brother in Catcher In The Rye. In the song’s first two verses K.R.I.T. paints a vivid, memoir-like account of growing up and yearning to be an artist, but at the same time he pulls off a neat trick of situating himself within a great tradition. The track comes to a close with K.R.I.T. reflecting on how he’s achieved his goals, saying, “Just know that I was once considered just a dreamer/But I paid my dues and turned so many doubters to believers.” It’s a satisfying ending, closing the loop on the song’s aspirational narrative, but it raises one question: What comes next when your dreams come true?
For K.R.I.T. the next step is to fight to keep those dreams alive. Live From The Underground is K.R.I.T’s oft-delayed, oft-discussed, oft-angsted-over debut studio album, and by design it’s probably going to feel a bit anticlimactic to anyone who enjoyed K.R.I.T.’s last three mixtapes. Underground could never capture the joyful surprise of 2010′s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, the elegiac calm of 2011′s Return Of 4Eva or the monk-like sense of dedication of this year’s 4Eva N A Day. The current hip-hop hype/release cycle in which often an artist drops a series of scattered, occasionally brilliant mixtapes before delivering a large, messy major-label statement isn’t really conducive to K.R.I.T.’s style or work process. The same things that made his mixtapes so excellent—consistency, nuanced production work, thematic coherence, a diligent attention to detail—are the things that make him a prime candidate for a major-label fiasco.
And yet, despite these conceptual limitations, Live From The Underground is a peculiar success, a major-label hip-hop debut that, yes, makes concessions to the mainstream but does them on its own weird, eccentric terms. Given the fact that K.R.I.T.’s last two mixtapes were centered around the anxiety of dealing with the pressures of signing to a major label, it should come as no surprise that the album kicks off with a song that compares the spread of underground music to the distribution of moonshine and ends with a skit where K.R.I.T. finds himself lost in “A&R-ville.” Like the skits on Kanye West’s College Dropout, it’s a bit silly and not super funny, but it situates the album. Things pick up with “Cool 2 Be Southern,” a song that uses a spry snare beat, subtle horns, delicate keys, an aching organ, hymn-like vocals and a hand-clap breakdown to celebrate one of K.R.I.T.’s favorite themes: regional pride as a form of joyous identity politics.
At times those politics can get a bit muddled on the more generic tracks, like the stripper anthem “Money On The Floor” or the I’m-always-working-so-I’m-a-shitty-boyfriend track “Porchlight,” but even these missteps, especially “Floor” with its smoky guitar, bleary synths and 2 Chainz verse, show K.R.I.T.’s command of ambience and tone. “Don’t Let Me Down” is a much better example of the album’s fundamentally compassionate worldview. In between crooning choruses that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Outkast record, K.R.I.T. raps, “I signed my deal and got more haters than I care to count/But I can’t fault them for their feelings ’cause I know the score/It’s hard to celebrate for others when you’re dying poor.” In an age when hip-hop’s biggest superstar cancels a show at the expense of her fans because of a slight from a perceived hater, it’s almost bizarre to hear someone not only forgive detractors but claim to understand and empathize with them.
However, this album is far more than a hip-hop civics lesson or an ethics class. This is a fun, ambitious collection of songs that offers just as many snazzy aesthetic pleasures as it does dorm-room philosophy sessions. Every songs snaps with trunk-rattling precision while still making room for expensive-sounding digressions and oddball experiments. Even a bumping lyrical exercise that’s mostly about driving like “Yeah Dats Me” is packed with the kind of crafty details that reward repeated listens, like goofy ad-libs, overdubs and a funny call-and-response section. “Hydroplaining” is a sleepy, nostalgic, stoner-rap mood piece. “Praying Man” is a spiritually anguished track about the slave trade that makes great use of a B.B. King guitar part.
Those who find K.R.I.T. to be an occasionally (or constantly) corny lyricist will still find things to mock here; K.R.I.T. remains obsessed with reminding everyone how old-school he is to an almost comical extent, and some of his attempts at sounding intimidating (“What U Mean”) can sound forced or overblown. But the production work is a lot more difficult to dismiss. Whether he’s blasting gleefully ignorant Dirty South tributes or patient, conscious-rap pleas, K.R.I.T. brings a craftsman’s command of form and an artist’s sense of purpose to everything he touches. It’s workman-like music, but I mean that in the positive, labor as an uplifting, fruit-bearing activity sense. I can’t wait to see what K.R.I.T. dreams up next.