Big K.R.I.T.’s style is a canny conflation of two, once-embattled rap undergrounds: Dead-serious conscious rap bumping up against wizened Dirty South artists like UGK and 8Ball & MJG. A hybrid of this kind of hip-hop with that type of rap music would’ve been an affront to hip-hop heads a decade ago. Now, an MC as milquetoast as J. Cole can spit, “I got love for the underground / Kweli, Pimp C, H-Town, where Bun B get down,” and no one questions that adjustment to the rap canon.
Live From the Underground goes even further in deconstructing the term “underground.” K.R.I.T. traces the concept of “the underground” through two centuries of black protest and illegal business done just to survive. Mostly, the underground still represents gritty honest rap music separate from the mainstream, whether its origins are at a spoken-word venue or out the trunk of a caddy, but K.R.I.T. also connects it to an underground that transported slaves to freedom (“Praying Man”) and helped bootleggers hustle moonshine (“Live From the Underground”). He’s attempting to portray the underground as a transgressive space that’s bigger than hip-hop.
This is K.R.I.T.’s major-label debut and all the money and time usually wasted on market-research and grabbing big-name guests and of-the-moment producers seems to have gone towards making the album sound as vibrant as possible. The agenda-free Dirty South songs (singles “I Got This” and “Money On The Floor”) sound crisp and explosive; and strange sonic diversions like a drum-line-meets-bounce breakdown on “Cool 2 Be Southern,” or a chopped-and-screwed take on “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” as the coda to “My Sub (Part 2: The Jackin’),” are inspired deviations from formula. On “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” wordless, almost-operatic vocals harmonize with a slow build of strings. “Praying Man,” featuring B.B. King, is an ambitious fusion of old-school rap storytelling and the slave-narrative tradition.
K.R.I.T. has contrived a rare moment when an artist harnesses major-label access and inexplicably smuggles something through that bests his cult-ish independent stuff. Think Slayer on Reign In Blood; ’90s Flaming Lips; Master P’s Ghetto D; and the baroque bigness of Kanye West’s College Dropout and Late Registration. Live From The Underground explodes like a widescreen version of one of K.R.I.T.’s highly regarded mixtapes. That, in and of itself, should be a victory. This week also sees the release of Curren$y’s The Stoned Immaculate, another immersive, weeded-out, world-building record from Spitta, yet one that inexplicably begins with a Wale verse. Even a compromise that miniscule doesn’t sneak onto Live from the Underground. K.R.I.T.’s not quite as “conscious” as usual, leaning more towards aggressive sex raps and repetitive hooks; but that actually benefits a rapper who can become a bit too self-satisfied with his own sincerity. Somehow, all the “compromises” here are turned into positives.