Rating: 4 Stars
It took six months, but the first great hip-hop album of 2012 is finally here. Well, half of one, at least.
The honor goes to Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T.‘s Live from the Underground, a wildly inconsistent effort that tries to please two very different kinds of listeners. Equal parts club bangers and street corner poetry, the album refuses to marry confidence with lyricism on the same track, limiting itself in the process. K.R.I.T.’s songs are either full tilt egoism jams or full tilt introspection, as if such content is lyrical oil and water. Whereas a veteran artist like Nas successfully combines both sides of the hip-hop mind on nearly every verse, this “separate but equal” approach from K.R.I.T. (short for King Remembered In Time) shows that he has some maturing to do.
After opening numbers that sound like the second coming of OutKast, Live from the Underground quickly tumbles into the repetitive grimy funk that plagues Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and so many other Southern rap albums. In this steady decline is an excess of “I’m the man” tracks, empty braggadocio anthems haphazardly laid over cliche drum-machine instrumentals. The booby-trapped four-song string that runs from “I Got This” to “My Sub” is especially troublesome, full of the misogyny and materialism that gives hip-hop a bad name.
Peppered around these duds are a few redemptive numbers (including “Porchlight,” offering further proof that an Anthony Hamilton hook works every time). Yet just when it seems like K.R.I.T. has found a positive groove, he falls right back into the bling-bling trap. While joy may certainly be derived from well done odes to popping bottles and custom cars (think Big Tymers’ “Still Fly”), K.R.I.T.’s versions are merely adequate. He may not be afraid to announce himself as a rapper about to get paid big time, but with the album’s frequent bursts of brilliance, it’s painful to see such a gifted rapper discount his skills.
Expectations are at last realized in the album’s brilliant final act. The silky groove of the Devin The Dude collabo “Hydroplaning” ushers in a more focused, interesting K.R.I.T., followed by “If I Fall,” a stripped-down jazzy beat so typical of socially conscious rap that it’s almost a letdown when Talib Kweli and Common don’t join in. The thoughtfulness remains consistent as Live from the Underground rides out and these standout closing tracks prove strong enough to eradicate the majority of its shortsighted brethren. The album is no instant classic, but in a drought year for hip-hop, it’ll do.
Don’t Miss – “Praying Man”
As B.B. King’s mournful hook and the bluesy licks of Lucille blanket the track, K.R.I.T. steps up and plays his best hand. The trio of verses carry the urgency, hopes, and fears of his oppressed black narrators, channeling the emotional depth of a master lyricist. With imagery this rich, you’ll wear out your “Back” button in no time.
OK to Skip – “Yeah Dats Me”
Yeah, yeah…K.R.I.T. is rich and cool. On Live from the Underground’s handful of throwaway tracks, he also sounds like every other subpar rapper out there. This dollar store beat and repetitive, annoying chorus form the worst of the bunch. Knowing that he’s capable of something like “Praying Man” makes K.R.I.T.’s fondness for bling tracks that much more baffling.