- SPIN Rating:6 of 10
"The Cautionary Tale of Lavell Crump" is a fable Big K.R.I.T., Mississippi's newest bright young hope, would do well to study. Perhaps you've heard of Crump, a/k/a rapper/producer David Banner, who's something of K.R.I.T.'s crooked-letter-state predecessor, having enjoyed a brief bout of mainstream buzz in 2003 with "Cadillacs on 22s," an unlikely rap semi-hit swaddled in acoustic guitar. But while many of his cohorts and collaborators soon rode Southern rap's breakout wave to stardom, Banner himself came up a little short. Partly because, as the story goes, successful Southern hip-hop became synonymous with trap-based drug raps and increasingly formulaic beats; something of a contrarian, Banner refused to conform to such stereotypes, and instead penned provocative political songs, tender laments on life in the 'Sip state, and viscerally violent threat-raps over rangy beats.
"I ain't never did nothing but praise God and my clip," he snarled on "Fuck 'Em," sound-biting his own soul. It was an intelligent mix befitting a man who was politically active in his collegiate days at Southern University, but was also fond of appearing on record covers fondling bullets. Predictably, alas, despite crafting something of a great, under-appreciated long-player in 2003's Mississippi: The Album, Banner never followed T.I. and Young Jeezy and their singular agendas to the top of Platinum Rap Mountain.
Big K.R.I.T.'s career has yet to fully play out — he's signed to Def Jam, though his full-length debut, Live From the Underground, has suffered repeated delays — but he's preemptively following in those telling footsteps when, on his latest free mixtape, he laments, "You can say that I'm bitter but tell me if I'm tripping / They stick they noses up and talk down on Mississippi / Imagine how you feel to know you work hard and you educated / And they treat you like you never made it." It's as though he's already accepted that rapping with intelligence and nuance is a burden he has to overcome. And might not.
Sour industry dealings were the tragic aspect of Banner's failed rise, but K.R.I.T.'s dilemma right now is mostly creative: pinpointing his limitations and surmounting them, all before his debut studio album is (hopefully) released later this year (maybe). 4evaNaDay, which follows up last year's critically adored online hit Return of 4Eva, does succeed in bolstering his reputation as the thinking fan's Southern rapper of choice. He has a canny and thoughtful approach to songwriting: On the melancholic, piano-bedded "Red Eye," he makes a mature contribution to the oft-rapped tension between his art and his lovers, confessing with a stark honesty, "What if love ain't enough and all we have is this trust? / What if I'm fucking it up so you don't trust in me much? / I'm wasting your time to say I'm straight, I'd be lying / It's either you or this music — but I can't make up my mind." K.R.I.T. undoubtedly writes from the soul, but too often he can't find his way into yours: Most of the 17 tracks here aren't so adept at capitalizing on either his personality or his emotions.
The project's production, entirely handled by the rapper himself, is the one aspect of the tape that doesn't suffer such snags. It's accomplished, rooted in the sort of early-'90s Southern-rap acts the artist presumably grew up listening to (tracks like "Down & Out" and "Me and My Old School" follow the lineage of the first couple 8Ball & MJG and UGK albums). As a producer, K.R.I.T. has already been hired to craft tracks for Ludacris and Wiz Khalifa; listening to the smooth grooves of 4evaNaDay underscores his growing reputation in that field.
For every instance that seduces you with K.R.I.T.'s prowess behind the boards, though, the mixtape throws up a song that pushes things back into an unfulfilling zone. The bluesy, climactic "Handwriting," a rant at his critics and doubters, offers the greatest insight into his inner turmoil, but while he rattles off his points eloquently — "I make albums not hits / These rich folks don't know about this" — he never builds up the head of steam necessary to convince you he really cares. He's meant to be on the attack — you want to hear him spraying spittle on the mic as he relays his anger and pain. But there's a sad lack of snap and abrasiveness.
Even the album's feistier moments, like "Country Rap" and the title track, lack enough punch to not just to bolster their own appeal, but allow subsequent lower-key moments to resonate on their own level. When he's angry and frustrated, he's not yet able to fully convey it. Instead, songs teeter on the edge of their intended vibe — lamentation, self-determination, reflection, mounting industry hostility — but without quite toppling over. 4evaNaDay leaves you suspicious that K.R.I.T. is rapping from his head, not his heart. He's a smart guy who raps stuck in a world where commercial success comes to those who figure out how to be a smart rapper.