Big K.R.I.T. | Live from the Underground | Black Music Month
Those who have known me for a couple of years know how I feel about Big K.R.I.T. Most of it’s based on the music, though there are other things that come from being cool with him and his people. Then there’s eerier stuff, like us sharing the same birthday and an analogous career arc between 2010 and now (something no less an authority than K.R.I.T.’s DJ, my man Wally Sparks, has also noticed).
But for me, it’s really about the music. Two years ago, Wally sent me a DM on Twitter and said I had to check out this new cat who he said was “like T.I., Pimp C and Ball and G rolled into one.” So yeah, I’ll check that out.
“That” was K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. I don’t listen to enough rap these days to get into whether it was the best album of the year, but it sure as hell was the best one I heard until My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out. And “Something” was definitely the best song I heard. On top of that, K.R.I.T. did all the beats and mixed it himself? I didn’t just have a new tape to listen to. I had a new rapper to follow, possibly the best I’d heard since T.I. hit the scene in ‘01. Strong words? You’re damn right.
In the time since, K.R.I.T. put out two other free albums, all different from K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. The high-pitched vocal samples were gone, and deep funk took over. Return of 4Eva sounds ready for the night, as does 4EvaNaDay, despite its concept of being a full 24 hours. The sound moved closer and closer to what you’ll hear on Live From The Underground, which started shaping up as a swamp funk album almost a year ago. Say what you want about K.R.I.T., but we’re a long way from K.R.I.T. Wuz Here.
Is that a good thing? That’s the question I’ve asked after spinning Live From The Underground for the last couple of weeks. The answer, of course, is anything but simple.
On The Evening Jones, I started rambling on my initial thoughts on Live From The Underground. There was no question whether I liked it. For those of us with a particular infatuation with first generation Gulf Coast hip hop, this sound and style is the evolution we’ve been waiting on. It’s got all the sincerity, the striking lack of pretense, and sonic sensibility that drew us into the classics from Houston and New Orleans, plus a touch of the polish that helped Atlanta blow up without quite selling out. It’s bottom heavy, liberally sprinkled with live guitar and bass (provided by Mike Hartnett, who did the same on ATLiens and Aquemini. The energy is controlled, just as good for ridin’ as it is chillin’. It won’t make a chick drop it, but she might be inclined to roll one up, if it’s her thing. It’s sophisticated Southern rap, true to a classic tradition without being dependent upon it. It’s the sort the ignorant is aware exists, the kind the radio would make you think went extinct. K.R.I.T. was the rapper I’d waited years to hear, which is almost unfair to say about someone so young, but he still hasn’t disappointed me.
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That is how good I think Live From The Underground is. Were I still young enough to do such things, “Cool to be Southern” would be our anthem like Goodie Mob’s “Fly Away” was in ‘98. “I Got This” takes that 1991 Efil4zaggin synth, a Three 6-ish hook, unstoppable bass line and Mannie’s high hats to make a for-the-fellas club joint that’ll get everyone to sing the hook. “What U Mean” comes with a bangin’ Ludacris feature and sounds like it’s 11:30 at Magic City. “My Sub Pt. 2” makes me glad I’ve got that sub in back dash (and that K.R.I.T. enlisted some help on the mix, because the 808 is flawless). The back half is more introspective, from “Don’t Let Me Down” to “Praying Man” with B.B. King.
It’s a major label release, but this is a Southern record for fans of that music. The compromises to the machine are hard to find, and that’s the best play possible for K.R.I.T. Love the South or hate it, but you must acknowledge that it won the long game in the rap business because it continued to make music for itself and its people. Southern rappers fought the temptation to chase dollars that were never promised and kept it regional. They just decided to sell the stuff to everyone else, but folks were gonna — figuratively — have to come to where they were to get it. That’s why, even as the sound gets bigger and the reach spreads, the ‘round-the-way quality that, before the Internet, made it so exciting to hear rap from other places remains in the music from down here, even though it’s damn near absent in most mainstream rap from the rest of America. K.R.I.T. may never go platinum this way, but he’ll eat doing shows forever, even if it’s the same 100 people there every time. Those 100 people will be paying, yanno? Through that lens, Live From The Underground will be a classic, because we can listen to records we love forever down here.
But is it perfect? No. Not even close.
That’s not to say anything is wrong with it, but something is missing. Maybe that’s greedy to say, but most would be lying if they said they didn’t notice something from K.R.I.T. Wuz Here hadn’t been on the last three releases. When R4 came out, I wondered what happened with K.R.I.T. and the woman he talked about so much on the last album. I really don’t care, per se, but the tension that came from that relationship was all over the album. The precocious introspection was what made me realize this kid was different, for there are few things more fascinating than a truly self-aware rapper (since they’re so fuckin hard to find). That added an excitement that really hasn’t been there since. You heard it in the samples, when K.R.I.T. jumped onto tracks, and certainly in the words. I doubt that was all because of that woman, but there was an energy there that’s hard to find here, even though K.R.I.T.’s clearly so much better now than he was then.
But you know what I think is missing? K.R.I.T.
K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was about K.R.I.T. R4 and 4EvaNaDAY seemed more about themselves, the execution of a concept. Live From The Underground, in many ways, feels the same. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I find K.R.I.T. himself to be more interesting than anything he’s talking about. It was the man and his growth that drew me in. Along the way, he’s become a better producer and way better at making records. But I wonder — has that been at the expense of what truly made this possible, the soul and personality of the man on the mic? Not the dude making the beats. The dude moving the crowd.
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This happens to everyone in the game, though. Hell, it happened to me as a writer (ask anyone who’s followed me the last eight years, and they would probably the same). The trick is adapting what you’ve learned with what you feel, becoming a maestro on the boards without letting your voice play second fiddle to the sound. When you start doing something personal and creative, what you’ve got is yourself. You pour it all out and figure out how to make it make sense. Then, once you learn, the power is pulled back in exchange for precision. Being precise is appreciated, but being passionate breaks down every wall any listener might have. It’s addictive to the ear, especially when it comes from someone as smart and aware as K.R.I.T.
And that’s not to say it’s absent from Live From The Underground. You can hear it on “If I Fall.” He brings it on “Cool to be Southern,” right along with the horns. It’s quieter, but it’s there on “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” Cats like K.R.I.T. couldn’t hide it, even if they wanted to.
But there’s a level of K.R.I.T. that’s harder to touch than was the case on K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. That’s the reason I can understand people who say they haven’t dug him as much since KWH. Even if it’s only different, no one gets to tell other people how to receive a change. And hell, I won’t pretend for a second there aren’t qualities from the older work that I wouldn’t love to hear now.
That, however, doesn’t change the fact that Live From The Underground is fantastic. After putting out three full albums and mixtapes for free, on which he produced and mixed everything, he puts out another one-man show. It builds on what was done before. Its pop songs — you know, the ones that pay the bills — are tighter and don’t sacrifice authenticity. The hooks are better. It’s focused. And, fuck what you heard — it’s a debut album. You rarely hear debuts this good that haven’t been dominated by the label. This isn’t the product of a bunch of A&R’ing, nor is K.R.I.T. a construction the label had always been waiting for.
This is one man who’s taken control of his career, owned his own sound and future, and dropped a record that will be the beginning of a long career. And he did it with a feature list full of hall of famers (Ball and G, Bun-B, Devin the Dude, Anthony Hamilton, B.B.). It’ll put him under the lights to receive the sort of scrutiny that can break the weak, but gives the greats lots to think about when trying to improve.
Its greatest shortcoming? We’ve heard K.R.I.T. before, putting us in a place to be mad about what we got last time that isn’t here. That’s doesn’t diminish criticism based on this fact. But all the stuff I have to say that isn’t flattering about Live From The Underground is about what it’s not instead of what it is. Not weaknesses, but room for improvement.
If you’ve been waiting for a major label rap release, dripping with soul in the face of 808’s, Live From The Underground is for you. If you’re looking for K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, for better or worse, you may have to go back to 2010.
But in 2012, the boy’s got what Wally calls “these good ass rap songs.” He damn sure does, and I’ve got an album I’ll be bumpin’ until K.R.I.T. gives us another one.