It would be harder to fault Big K.R.I.T. for playing it close to the chest if the man hadn’t insisted on tempting fans with intimations of a rich conceptual imagination. Coming as it does on the heels of several increasingly confident releases, Live From the Underground winds up flirting, teasing and dropping hints, but never quite embracing the hermetic tendencies that have distinguished the Mississippi-based MC.
Via mixtapes R4: The Prequel and 4eva Na Day, Big K.R.I.T. established himself as the MC most likely to bear Southern Rap’s sweaty sexuality and laid-back beats into a new decade. Essential to Big K.R.I.T.’s appeal, and the lynchpin in his record deal with Def Jam, was the original spin he brought to a sub-genre top-heavy with its own conventions. K.R.I.T. produced his own beats, devising an aesthetic best described as nocturnal soul. Mixtape 4eva Na Day married his introspective leanings to his fascination with ambitious thematic scope by employing the length of its fifteen tracks to tell the story of a single day in his life.
With Big K.R.I.T.’s remarkable comfort in his own style and demonstrate-able willingness to tilt at lyrical windmills, it was possible that Live From the Underground would turn out to be a Southern Rap opus, a sweatingly lascivious response to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That Live From the Underground acquits itself admirably shouldn’t come as a disappointment, though it’s hard to ignore the feeling that behind its crepuscular beats and shrug-worthy lyricism, a game changer lurks.
The album actually maintains a slight conceptual bent, albeit one without the soul-baring audacity of 4eva Na Day. In a skit that closes out the title track, K.R.I.T. describes how a Cadillac crash in “A&R-ville” has resulted in this most major of major-label debuts. That narrative disappears soon thereafter, but K.R.I.T.’s production still lends the LP a firm stylistic cohesion.
Whereas past releases had hinted at the unique aspects of Big K.R.I.T.’s production style, Live From the Underground latches onto the singularities of that aesthetic and turns them up to 11. The album slides effortlessly between a series of scandalous, soul-styled samples. At some points, it seems like an uninterrupted concatenation of narcotic, cyclical hooks. Distinctive examples include “I Got This”, “Pull Up” and mixtape holdover “Money On The Floor”, but really, you could pick a track at random and it would most likely send you riding about your bedroom in an imaginary Cadillac low-rider.
The LP’s lyrics tend toward the Southern Rap staples of women, money and the enthusiastic acquisition of both, which actually works just fine, as Live From the Underground’s most successful moments are composed of visceral, rather than intellectual pleasures. On “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, K.R.I.T. pays homage to his father’s hard-knock strategy of child rearing, but that’s about as deep as the album gets lyrically. Perhaps wisely, Big K.R.I.T. has chosen to let his debut live or die on the strength of its beats, an area in which it overachieves without incident.
And therein lies the problem: Live From the Underground’s weaknesses wouldn’t even be weakness if not for the album’s remarkable strengths. Even in hip-hop’s upper echelons, you would be hard-pressed to find a talent as distinctive as Big K.R.I.T.’s, and the fact that he has yet to marry his effortless production instincts to a wider thematic scope might simply owe to commercial conservatism. Either that, or Big K.R.I.T.’s music is a bizarre example of a nearly perfect ear for style, combined with a careless disinterest in substance.