Hip-hop is too often tied to its own hegemonic and violent self-definition, so that innovation becomes taboo. But the number of hip-hop artists, even mainstream, who have managed to do nothing but chest-thump are slowly waning from relevance . Meanwhile those unafraid to be weird (Lil’ B), emotional (Kid Cudi), feminine (Danny Brown), spacy (El-P), foppish (Theophilus London), or take a jackhammer to the wall itself (Kanye West) are ripping headlines and changing the way we think about the genre. Big K.R.I.T. is unique in that he’s garnered respect from both camps–the ruling order and the innovative maniacs, a balancing act that, for the time being, gives him unlimited possibility.
The songs alone can’t carry the album. It’s storytelling, undertaken with a stunning array of rhymes and confessional stanzas–while touching on a series of different memories, sensations and hopes–coming back to a unified arc. He goes from obscurity to “A&Rville”, violence and hatred to love and acceptance. If K.R.I.T. did sell-out, hell, at least he’s got better equipment now. Live From The Underground is steeped in humid and rich production. It has that back porch, Mississippi night air to it, a soulful testament the likes of which hasn’t been heard since the Delta Blues. “Praying Man,” featuring B.B. King and his weeping Lucille, is a first-person account of an African slave escaping his chains–drawing the album’s parallel to another underground journey for freedom.
When it comes to presence, K.R.I.T. is all over this one–he’s one of few able-bodied producer/rappers in the game and does both no holds barred. What’s remarkable about his dense flow is that, peeling it apart, there’s nothing unripe. The twenty-five year old is notorious for his work ethic and Live From The Underground is exactingly crafted, at least in verse. In “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” a meditation on his upbringing he reminsces, “I remember when I fell from my first bike/ There were no ‘Are you okays’ and rarely ‘Are you alrights’/ Just dirt in my pockets, handful of gravel/ That’s when I realized that getting up is only half the battle” Houston chop-and screw beats, not trap, some 808s– K.R.I.T.’s style, like his hometown, represents a precise midpoint between Houston and Atlanta. His heroes are as much Bun B (who makes a superb cameo on ‘Pull Up’) as they are Outkast and Ludacris. While his independent mixtapes, the 4eva series, are brilliant, one has to wonder if these big-name collaborations would have been possible had he not ventured into the land of mainstream.
What prevents Live From The Underground from being a classic (this is not to say that it’s by any means a weak debut) are the same elements that would mean salvation for lesser rappers: club bangers, dull hooks and leaning on guests who may or may not carry their weight (looking at you, 2 Chainz)–weapons of the generic. Like “If I Fall,” which touts a supreme piano hook with the young Melanie Fiona sounding pretty but saying little. “Money on the Floor” other than its great bass line, is an ordinary strip-club anthem. “My Sub, Pt. 2” is K.R.I.T.’s way of dealing with scorn, his signature mix of flossing and self-deprecation, “I still got my sub, hoe.”
Live From the Underground may be an album greater than the sum of its parts but its ambition and calling cannot be ignored. Judging by his namesake, the album’s success doesn’t matter to K.R.I.T., time is on his side.
Big K.R.I.T. – Live from the Underground tracklist:
- “LFU300MA (Intro)”
- “Live From The Underground”
- “Cool 3 Be Southern”
- “I Got This”
- “Money on the Floor”
- “What U Mean”
- “My Sub (Pt. 2: The Jackin’)”
- “Don’t Let Me Down”
- “Pull Up”
- “Yeah Dats Me”
- “If I Fall”
- “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”
- “Praying Man”
- “Live From The Underground (Reprise)”