The Death and Resurrection of Conscious Rap, Pt. 3

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Big K.R.I.T. in April 2011 (Photo: Josh Sisk for The Washington Post via Getty)
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

If Kanye West's binary-breaking rise to superstardom didn't kill off what was left of conscious rap, then the cratering of record sales, which led to a mass rapper exodus to the Internet (and the creation of a new "underground") most certainly did. Though there's not much money to go around these days, there's almost an overabundance of smart, sensitive hip-hop right now and it has led to a sprawling, multitude-filled rap scene separate from the mainstream.

Here's the place where I should list a bunch of current rappers who are carrying on the conscious rap tradition. But that's not really for me or anybody else to declare, at least not yet. To do anything more than document the scene as it's happening seems unwise, so this last installment of "The Death and Resurrection Of Conscious Rap" will extend its narrative no further: Something is going on right now in rap and it has a lot to do with the Internet.

Check out 'The Death and Resurrection Of Conscious Rap, Pt. 1' and Pt. 2.

Two rappers who I think represent the vanguard of conscious hip-hop are Big K.R.I.T., a painfully sincere MC/producer, and Kristmas, an earthy lyricist and cell-phone salesman (and friend to buzzing Alabama rappers G-Side). Both are products of the Internet, but not the obnoxious, of-the-moment, blog sector; they exist in a world where it's simply possible to build a name and fanbase without the luxury of conventional promotion.

K.R.I.T. has been around since 2005, but 2009's The Last King was his first great release. The Mississippi rapper grabbed from '90s Southern rap with wild abandon, tapping into the introspective, sneering side of sensitive, old-soul assholes like Pimp C and 8Ball. Last year's K.R.I.T. Wuz Here was more aggressive, best exemplified by the title track, which features K.R.I.T. announcing, "It's the return of forever hoe." At the same time, he was more heartfelt: See "They Got Us," a righteously indignant attack on institutionalized racism. K.R.I.T. signed to Def Jam not longer after K.R.I.T. Wuz Here dropped.

But rather than quickly roll out an official album, K.R.I.T.'s approach on this year's Return Of 4Eva mixtape was to further develop his voice. He's slowly letting go of the pimp-rap cliches and almost exclusively indulging his searching, conscious rapper side. "Rise And Shine" is a tribute to OutKast's "Git Up, Git Out," and it lives up to that song's affront to hood apathy. Return Of 4Eva's production is more OutKast than UGK this time around, with less focus on whether this stuff will sound good in a car and more on how it'll make a listener feel.

At times, the sound sneaks away from K.R.I.T.'s country-rap comfort zone entirely, moving toward a more nostalgic, throwback style, focusing on sample-based beats that have a kind of animal-brain emotional appeal to almost any rap nerd. "Dreamin" is based around a slightly sped-up soul song, and in the video, K.R.I.T. appears as a janitor; in another scene, he digs through records, positioning himself as a decidedly non-flashy, worker-bee rapper/producer. Though the Internet is responsible for his success, K.R.I.T. is a traditionalist at heart, and he's ignored the viral hype loop, using the immediacy of the web to drop fully-formed albums.

In 2008, Kristmas' song "Bama Gettin' Money" was remixed by Diplo and Benzi's for Fear & Loathing In Hunts Vegas, their hipster-friendly compilation of Huntsville, Alabama hip-hop. In 2009, Kristmas showed up on Rocket City, another Huntsville compilation curated by the blog Traps N Trunks. "Dopeman Girlfriend," Kristmas' song from Rocket City, is a hilarious storytelling rap, but he also slyly pulls back the curtain on the day-to-day life of drug dealing. See, Kristmas boasts that he's "fuckin' the dopeman's girlfriend" because the dealer's busy all day, every day trying to keep his money up. "He's always with his clique and they always in the trap / So I'm always at his house with his lady in my lap," jokes Kristmas, bringing a very Wire-like focus on dealing as an all-compassing hustle into an "I stole your girl" song.

Clever, corrective verses like that kept coming. On G-Side's "Rising Sun," Kristmas branded himself as the straight-and-narrow "W2 boy," whose "central tenet," as described by the blog Southern Hospitality, was "that it's better to be a rapper with a day job than one who sells drugs or gangbangs part-time." The rhetoric ramped up on "Y U Mad," a G-Side song from this year's The One...Cohesive, in which Kristmas lets out a downright Cosby-like verse that tells thugs and dope boys, "piss-poor excuses such a poverty don't bother me / You could've chosen college, [you] ain't have to choose a robbing spree."

Kristmas' W2 Boy was released in April via BandCamp, and it's like a bizarro Young Jeezy album: Big, hulking electronic beats about not dealing drugs. Other than his use of the Internet, Kristmas' career is old-fashioned: Using guest appearances to make a name for himself, and then, finally, dropping an album. Releasing music online isn't the same as bouncing around the country doing shows, but it updates the underground's sense that hip-hop success, of any sort, is gained through hard work and paid dues. Both of these guys have paid their dues. Continue reading 'The Death and Resurrection of Conscious Rap Pt. 3' on page 2 >>

K.R.I.T. and Kristmas also embody the "I may not get there with you" perspective that I attributed to OutKast's conscious rap superstar status in the second part of this series. There's a constant sense that both of these guys are checking themselves in their raps, like their own flaws and foibles are not too far from their frustrations with everybody else. Kristmas doesn't try to suggest that keeping on the straight-and narrow is easy. Album opener "Something Wrong," finds him burdened by his outsider status: "Niggas been rapping about trapping for so long, by having a job it feels like I've been doing something wrong." On "My Bizness" Kristmas admits, "Yeah, I live in the mall and frequent the strip club / I like fat ass and gettin' my dick sucked"; one skit finds him in jail for a DWI (he's also part of hedonistic Huntsville side project DB49). When he's not preaching a wizened, moderate philosophy, he's confessing to buying too much shit, womanizing, and drinking a lot.

Even on the overtly conscious Return Of 4Eva, K.R.I.T. reveals a passion for cars and jewelry that he celebrates and bemoans Kanye-style ("Mama I made it, I got my chain now," he proclaims on "Free My Soul"), and he isn't above admitting to, well, fucking girls like every other dude. "Shake It" finds him getting some road head and "Get Right" engages in the usual paranoid "girls want my money" cliches. The song's almost a parody of hisrallying-cry raps, since a glance at the title might lead you to think it's a demand for us all to to get our acts together. Instead, it's a hedonistic DJ Quik-esque shout to "Get right, all night."

Return Of 4EVa answers its late-album run of haunting introspection ("Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism," "Free My Soul," "The Vent") with a remix of K.R.I.T. Wuz Here's "Country Shit." It's straight-up loud, ignorant rap song for the club, now handed over to Ludacris and UGK's Bun B, and it's K.R.I.T.'s best shot at a radio hit and a reminder that he can be less than sanctimonious. Sometimes, just like the rest of us, conscious rappers wanna wild the fuck out too. And though that should be obvious, it's something that the scene long ago chose not to embrace -- and it's a refreshing sign of progress.

Neither of these rappers hails from a conventional hip-hop hub either, and provincialism is particularly important to conscious rap's next wave.K.R.I.T., a native of Meridian, Mississippi, and Kristmas, born in Shorter, Alabama but now living and working in Huntsville, aren't slightly outside the mainstream--they're from places that A&Rs aren't investigating at all. These guys can deploy a certain rhetorical authority by being both so far off the music-industry grid, and yet, still so no-nonsense. If rappers from Atlanta, ground zero for mainstream hip-hop, fall back on their tough upbringing and lack of opportunity as the reason for their crack-slinging (and also, why they now rap about it), well what's stopping a Mississippi kid and a cell-phone salesman from Alabama from exploiting their backgrounds?

On "Y U Mad," Kristmas references his hometown of Shorter when he speaks to his peers who have chosen a life of crime. "Google Shorter and you'll see that we had equal opportunity," he lectures, and then entertains his shit-talking side, declaring, "it's survival of the realest," taking back that term back from its tough-guy, gangsta-rap context. For Kristmas, "real" means going legit and working hard. Kristmas entertains more conventional "positive" conscious rap ideas, such as staying faithful on "My Good Thang" and body image on a punk-rock rap called "Society Sayz," featuring a riot grrl-like guest verse from female rapper S.L.A.S.H. But he's most challenging when he launches into his "C'mon people!"-like critiques.

K.R.I.T.'s at his best when he overturns conscious rap expectations too. "Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism" is a didactic screed against bowing to lowered expectations. The song evokes a vision of K.R.I.T. walking through his neighborhood, shaking his head, bummed out by all theknuckleheads; but then his thoughts angrily spiral out to the institutions that don't give a fuck about anybody in the hood. "Tell the government...tell them white folks...tell them black folk," K.R.I.T. declares, "I don't wanna be another nigga." There's no holding back and the song is as affecting it is uncomfortable.

What's so important about these particular sentiments is that they aren't all that different, generally speaking, from what black conservatives like Shelby Steele or Stanley Crouch have said over the years. And so, the conservative raps of K.R.I.T. and Kristmas are as much of a challenge to liberal hip-hop fans as to their intended d-boy audience. A lot of what these guys say, which is very much unconcerned with political correctness, isn't so easy for anybody to hear. Preaching to the converted has long been the bane of conscious rap's existence, and it bodes well for the future to hear two rappers finally transcend the most nagging criticism of the scene.

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