Before Live from the Underground, Big K.R.I.T. was maybe the most exciting rapper whose discography was without a studio album proper. Between his free K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, Return of 4Eva, and 4EvaNaDay mixtapes, not to mention odd singles like “Money on the Floor”, the Mississippi native has put out enough unrelenting Third Coast bangers to fill a greatest-hits comp for someone who’s been around twice or thrice as long as he has. But even with those tapes and other assorted tracks, here, with this full-length major-label debut, is where the rubber hits the road. When, after all, has a mixtape been widely recognized as a classic record?
Thankfully, the aesthetic K.R.I.T. has been carving out remains largely intact here: raps alternately boast- and thoughtful, beats almost always rooted, in one way or another, in staples of early UGK and ‘90s Rap-A-Lot. “Money on the Floor”, one of the best rap songs of last year, still sounds great, all slapping bass and delectable zipping synth lines (oh, and there’s the obligatory 2 Chainz feature). On the title track, we get K.R.I.T. spinning without pretension stories of his formative experiences and how they’ve helped him in the long run: “My papa told me, ‘Get paper, motherfuck a hater/ Them J’s look clean, son, but elevate to gators’/ I’m givin’ out game, player, are there any takers?”. B.B. King shows up on “Praying Man”, and while such a guest spot might seem likely to flop, K.R.I.T. makes it work by mixing in honest introspection with a rainy-day atmosphere and a decades-old-sounding sample that comes off as something akin to an a cappella version of Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” (no, really). These are all testimony to K.R.I.T.’s phenomenal talents as a producer, fashioning Live from the Underground into a record with as many musical and lyrical contours as any other major-label rap album to come out this year.
There’s already been some talk about K.R.I.T. selling out with this album. Ignore that talk. While there are some hooks here (“I Got This”, “Yeah Dats Me”) that are much more forthright than just about anything K.R.I.T.’s done prior, none of the hooks, not even the Melanie Fiona-supplied one on “If I Fall”, feel synthetic (which is to say you shouldn’t expect any “Words I Never Said”s or “Made in the U.S.A.”s from this one). Sure, you get songs about weed (the Devin the Dude-assisted “Hydroplaning”), strippers (“Money on the Floor”), and car speakers (“My Sub 2.0: The Jackin’”), but virtually every moment here is bolstered by the ever-excellent Third Coast beatmaking and songwriting that K.R.I.T.’s been perfecting for years now. In essence, you can hear how these songs might earn K.R.I.T. loads of new fans, but they won’t do so cheaply; the title here is still Live from the Underground, remember, which seems to say that K.R.I.T. is still very much independent, at least in his own mind.
That said, what’s most important to know about Live from the Underground is that it’s not the classic it could have been. But honesty and craftsmanship (and, yes, some hubris) run through the record, and the unmemorable tracks (“Porchlight”, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”) are just barely so. On those grounds, how could you condemn it?
Essential Tracks: “I Got This”, “Money on the Floor”, and “Yeah Dats Me”