It seems strange now that when Big K.R.I.T. released his critically acclaimed K.R.I.T. Wuz Here mixtape a little over two years ago, both the bloggerati and Beats-adorned backpack kids alike were declaring the Mississippi MC/producer the new rap savior of the South. This was, of course, in the wake of the tragic death of Pimp C and T.I.’s imprisonment on gun charges and inside the vacuum of space created by a collective anticipatory holding-of-breath for Big Boi’s long-delayed solo album–not to mention the realization that Outkast as we previously knew them were unlikely to ever exist again.
With such a drought parching the thirst of the Third Coast’s most ardent constituents, it made sense to look for an oasis somewhere, and K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was the closest and most promising source of relief. The hopes and expectations weren’t unfounded, either. Big K.R.I.T. arrived as a double threat, with deft and emotive lyrical ability on the mic and Southern fried traditional skills behind the boards. Wuz Here inserted itself as a valuable addition to the region’s canon, a renewal of the ‘hood-oriented, back-country consciousness of Goodie Mob, served with a healthy portion of bass and ignorance for less-discerning club palettes.
Two additional mixtapes followed, Return of 4Eva (2011) and 4evaNaDay (2012) which, along with K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, essentially comprised an interconnected trilogy of albums. And a third ‘tape, Last King 2 (God’s Machine) released in summer 2011, was a collection of unreleased cuts and K.R.I.T.-featured tracks basically acting as a placeholder and promise of more to come.
Which brings us to Big K.R.I.T.’s “official” Def Jam debut, Live From The Underground. Live continues in the tradition of the 4Evatrilogy, remaining stubbornly regional in its lyrical focus and musical aesthetic. That’s all well and good for me. As an aging head I find comfort and nostalgia in rap that finds its fundamental roots in a particular corner of the map. Nationalize banks and health care, not hip-hop, I say. The problem with Live From The Underground is that it seems the man used up all of his best material on previous endeavors which, if we’re being honest, weren’t really “mixtapes” at all but fully-realized albums. By the end of 4evaNaDay (and even on some parts of Return of 4Eva) it was clear K.R.I.T. was spreading himself too thin. And on Live the rapper relies even more on typified Southern rap tropes that, when placed in context with all the great things suddenly happening in the region (R.A.P. Music, the renewed relevance of Big Boi and Andre 3000, G-Side, Yelawolf, and 2 Chainz — uh, sure, I guess), start to feel like a pair of worn-out dungarees.
There is some good here. “Money On The Floor”, with its slinky bass and 8-bit synth, evokes the type of Southern Cadillac crawl music that all riding heads thirst for. And “Cool 2 Be Southern” thumps along as a lively dance groove. But even these highlights become problematic for various reasons. 8Ball and MJG connect generations and throw their legendary weight around on “Money On The Floor” but manage to outshine their host on virtually every bar, as it goes with the majority of guest-featured tracks on the album. Meanwhile, K.R.I.T.’s elementary declaration of, “I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Dirty South / Folks with the grills in mouth” on “Cool 2 Be Southern” elicited a sarcastic and bored “No kidding” from this critic. Follow that with numerous references to candy painted cars and blown-out subwoofers and cue eyes glazing over.
Even K.R.I.T.’s strengths start to become weaknesses. He sounds best when paired on mid-tempo soul productions with singers Melanie Fiona (“If I Fall”) and the always brilliant Anthony Hamilton (“Porchlight”), nice laid-back collaborations that nevertheless suggest K.R.I.T.’s voice can’t stand up to the strip club trap of other tracks like “What U Mean,” where a Southern rapper with greater vocal presence (Ludacris) easily takes over the proceedings.
This may all sound like a monumental bitch fest over an album that I still think is, on the whole, better than average (if a 2.75 rating was possible, I’d give it here). Big K.R.I.T.’s best character trait is still preserved on Live From The Underground: a willingness to display a greater range of emotion than most rappers. He treads close to Tupac-like complexity on “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and “Praying Man” (featuring B.B. King), emotional pathos that is elsewhere drowned with liquor and requisite “hoe” references. K.R.I.T. finds refreshing clarity when he focuses on the root causes of distress but just gets lost in the Southern rap shuffle when pandering to shallower, standard expectations. The bad news here is that Big K.R.I.T. has turned out not to be the Dirty South Rap Savior we all hoped he would, but the good news is that the region never really needed saving in the first place.