Big K.R.I.T.’s Dirty South classicism is a gift and a curse. For all his bellicosity — celebrating “Country Shit” and rubber-band men and eating collard greens — he simply isn’t as amorally opportunistic as, say, 2 Chainz, who probably would rap about selling china white to grade-school kids if it netted him more downloads. For K.R.I.T., the Mississippi rapper’s love for Southern hip-hop’s pioneers is as much professorial as it is personal, and he tends to package his songs in a sociological context that canonizes his heroes while explaining their world to cultural tourists. He’s what was once called a “conscious rapper,” and that quality has helped him win fans in unlikely places — last week, the ever-so-tasteful NPR hosted an advance stream of his major-label debut, Live from the Underground, a rare event for a rap record.
But it’s a tricky negotiation between immersing yourself in debauchery while putting all those candy cars and sizzurp binges in the proper context. K.R.I.T. struck that balance perfectly on two justly lionized mixtapes, 2010’s Krit Wuz Here and 2011’s Return of 4eva. On sequel 4eva N A Day, which hit the Internet in March, he meandered into fogs of sleepy introspection and spacey, occasionally aimless beats. Live from the Underground is billed as his first “real” album, but it faces an audience well aware of his artistic idiosyncrasies. (Greenstreets Entertainment, an imprint of Nature Sounds, reissued Krit Wuz Here and Return of 4eva on CD last May.)
Still, the pleasures here shouldn’t be taken for granted. Two-thirds of the way through this endlessly delayed album, he lets loose “Yeah Dats Me,” shouts again and again, “Yeah dats me! Who dat gettin’ money?” over a bouncing riff. It’s a catchy, simple hook improbably extended into a three-minute song, but it’s a deliriously free moment that answers anyone who criticizes K.R.I.T. for ignoring the blunt aggression that made his ’90s heroes like Scarface and UGK so strikingly remarkable to begin with.
Elsewhere, for “Money on the Floor,” he aspires to the sumptuous lasciviousness of 8 Ball and MJG’s 1996 classic “Space Age Pimpin’,” inviting the two Memphis pioneers (and, yes, perennial 2012 guest star 2 Chainz, too) to join in. It doesn’t quite match the original, but it’s still a lushly erotic interlude. “I Got This” offers a whirring funky-worm synth line reminiscent of vintage gangsta rap, and that’s not the only allusion to the early-’90s West Coast renaissance that once inspired Southern rap: On “If I Fall,” K.R.I.T. briefly speaks in a cadence reminiscent of 2Pac as he personifies a hungry, depressed young hustler: “On the hunt for a nigga to jack / Soon as I get rich I’m givin’ it back.” He sets the lyrics over a melancholy piano melody and Melanie Fiona’s ruminative vocals.
But don’t worry, regional-rap gurus: K.R.I.T. stocks Underground with plenty of ignorance. He’s as devoted to “pimpin'” as anyone, though admittedly he’s more of a weekend warrior than a 24/7 D-boy. He and Devin the Dude smoke kush and sip lean on “Hydroplaning,” while Ludacris helps him demand sex from the hoes on “What U Mean,” perhaps the album’s most mean-spirited moment. (“What you mean you ain’t nasty? Why the fuck you came?”)
However, he helpfully separates most of his “street songs” from the rest of the album. The transition point is “My Sub (Pt. 2: The Jackin’),” a story that begins with K.R.I.T. picking up a shorty at the liquor store and ends with him getting jacked by her boyfriend in front of a motel. It’s as if his high-profiling pose has reached its breaking point, leading to “Don’t Let Me Down” and an acknowledgement that neighborhood stardom has led to “more haters than I care to count.” By the next song, the country-soul ballad “Porchlight,” he actually tries to seduce a woman instead of merely assuming that she’s “down to fuck.” Ironically, the moral clarity and recognition that all actions have potential consequences sets K.R.I.T. apart from much of the Southern hip-hop scene he venerates, at least in its modern form, where racks-on-racks-on-racks raps yield ever more outrageous claims of moving weight and blowing money.
Completely produced by K.R.I.T. himself, Live from the Underground varies in sound from the staccato bass chops of “Yeah Dats Me” to the stirring rural swing of “Porchlight” and its Anthony Hamilton chorus. He imagines himself as a slave who escapes his lynching through seemingly divine intervention on “Praying Man” and invites B.B. King to sing the hook. Despite all the guests, though, he sounds like he’s orchestrating the whole thing on a laptop in his bedroom, and occasionally, particularly as the album draws to a close with slower-paced songs such as “If I Fall” and “Praying Man,” the music feels intimate, even hermetic.
Yet it’s that same introspective quality that makes him a man wonderfully out of time. On “Live from the Underground (Reprise),” he sings soulfully amid a bluesy jam session that brings to mind the funk benedictions that frequently ended OutKast’s masterworks, ad-libbing, “I gotta get a move on / They say the train’s still comin’, it won’t be long / Only the good lord knows my woes.” Big K.R.I.T. seems like a poet who’s deep in his old-school reverie, contemporary relevance be damned.