I approached Live from the Underground of the opinion that Big K.R.I.T. is the most exciting hip-hop artist to emerge in the last few years. A big statement, yes, but one based purely on the quality of his output thus far. Dropping beautifully constructed mixtapes every few months, the Mississippi native has been at the forefront of hip-hop’s revaluation of what actually constitutes a mixtape, releasing a number of fully-functioning, fully-original and fully-free records that qualify as classics in their own right.
On K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, Return of 4va and 4Eva N A Day, as well as his underrated Last King series, K.R.I.T. may have already shown and proved, but traditionalists will still point to the importance of an official release in transforming a rising rookie to recognized star. Released on Def Jam, Live from the Underground has been much delayed because of sample clearing difficulties (that old chestnut), feeding into the anticipation surrounding the young rapper as mixtape after mixtape hit big. How would this new-age underground king perform on a bigger label, on a bigger platform and with a bigger budget? Could it be that K.R.I.T. had sat on his very best tracks in anticipation of his Def Jam release? Would his work be damaged by the inevitable pressure to score a radio hit?
Fortunately, there’s no sense here that K.R.I.T. has changed his established ethos or pandered to label demands. Like previous releases, the album is a celebration of all things Southern. K.R.I.T.’s style draws heavily on the region’s hip-hop greats, with OutKast, UGK and Scarface all vital touching points. But rather than straight pilfering their style or claiming to be the heir apparent, K.R.I.T. feels more like a product of their legacy. At 25, his formative years were spent in a city that worshipped these third coast stars. Their work has been instilled into his style organically, and he embraces his region’s history, dead set on bringing it back to the forefront of hip-hop. Because of this, every K.R.I.T. release feeling like a cool drive through the streets of mid-’90s Mississippi, with the man himself in the driver’s seat. Live from the Underground is not the wide-spanning autobiographic work that Return of 4va was, but he does acknowledge his roots early on “Cool 2 Be Southern”. “Ok I’m straight up off my grandmamma porch / Hollywood left, I took the southernized approach / Collard green pockets but I southern fried the flow / Candied yam drop with some cornbread to throw.” Spiritually taking that step from adolescents to manhood (at least career wise), K.R.I.T. gives us clues to his ambitious intentions.
In many ways Live from the Underground feels like the inevitable end point his career’s opening act. His rapping (sometimes unfairly criticised) has improved continuously, and here the fluidity is impressive. There are no obvious runs for the radio, but K.R.I.T. has always been a tuneful rapper, effortlessly hanging hooks on hooks to head-bobbingly good effect. On first single “Money on the Floor”, for example, he lusciously spits the opening verse, laying down a complex but infectious few bars, setting an impossible to achieve standard for guests 8Ball and 2 Chainz. K.R.I.T.’s also taken to singing, competently chanting hooks on the church-influenced title track and bluesy highlight “Don’t Let Me Down”. Lyrically he continues to impress. “I ain’t rappin’ about dope nor did I sell it / I guess the story of a country boy just ain’t compelling,” he stated on last year’s “Dreamin’”, bemoaning the lack of diversity in 21st century mainstream hip-hop. But his rhymes are indeed compelling, from the knock around tales of country boy living (“My Sub part 2”, “I Got This”) to character pieces (“Don’t Let Me Down”), K.R.I.T. is a gifted storyteller and rarely treads obvious ground.
Production-wise this is much of what we’ve come to expect from K.R.I.T., who as always self-produces every track. He funnels gospel, blues, jazz and old school R&B to achieve that distinctly Southern sound. Arrangements are built on flowing, funky baselines, rounded drum beats and snappy snares, with beats then punctuated with fine axe work and gorgeous sax section blowing over top. Southern myths of the Devil’s influence on the great bluesmen can be heard on the weathered croaks of blues legend (and that’s putting it mildly) BB King on “Praying Man”, while he recruits the always soulful Anthony Hamilton on the fresh love song “Porchlight”. Rejecting the more radio-friendly vocalists-for-hire like, say, Ne-Yo or Usher, and instead using two artists who really punctuate his style, K.R.I.T.’s decision making here is refreshing and inspired. In fact, Live from the Underground’s only real misstep is the manic ‘Yeah Dats Me’, which represents an unexpected (and frankly unwelcomed) attempt at nineties Miami bass rap.
Live from the Underground isn’t quite the reckoning we might have dreamed about, but it sits comfortably beside the other great records its author has cut. Having spent the last few years following Southern rap greats, he can now take a giant step forward and confidently walk side-by-side with his idols.