A thousand dollars and a pan of brownies: That’s what Mississippi rapper and producer Big K.R.I.T. offered to anyone who could identify every sample he used on 2010’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. No one could; there were too many, too seamlessly intertwined. The mixtape was a rich, deeply soulful stream of sounds, what with all those uncovered piano and vocal passages, and it was merely K.R.I.T.’s breakthrough project. With later releases, including 2011’s Return of 4eva, he showed even more vision, continuing to look to Southern rap luminaries like Outkast and David Banner for the base of his sound, but chasing original ideas as well. Soon enough, he was one of the most promising musicians in Southern hip-hop, with artists like The Roots, Texas blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr., and British art rockers Alt-J (not to mention fellow rappers like T.I., Wiz Khalifa, and the entire cast of A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train”) seeking out his talents for remixes and album contributions — but it all started with a production style that only required one pair of ears.
Cadillactica, his follow-up to 2012’s studio album, Live from the Underground, and last year’s King Remembered in Time mixtape, is another story, marking a significant change in K.R.I.T.’s creative process: Aiming for a different sense of collaboration this time, he only used three samples on the thing, choosing instead to work with producers like Terrence Martin, DJ Dahi, Jim Jonsin, and Raphael Saadiq, and in a real studio when possible. Even more indicative of K.R.I.T.’s desire to innovate, it’s a concept album, partly inspired by records like Outkast’s ATLiens and Eightball & MJG’s Space Age 4 Eva. Planet Cadillactica, he says, is simply his subconscious, and the album serves as a positive dispatch about growing up. Accordingly, it’s a long one — at 56 minutes, it’s technically the shortest of his official projects, but structurally, it feels like his weightiest to date. That’s OK: K.R.I.T. needs the time and space to showcase his range if he wants to create a masterpiece.
Again, the elegance of his style is evident in the instrumentation first. “Soul Food”, featuring Saadiq on vocals, is a flicker of boom-bap drums and twinkling keys. The short but affecting “Standby (Interlude)” features jazz musician Kenneth Whalum III’s warm saxophone curling like smoke. “Third Eye” starts atmospheric like his “Make My” collaboration with The Roots, and it only gets prettier with the scurrying flute of its final third. The escalating “Saturdays = Celebration”, with Jamie N Commons, is a mist of persistent piano progressions and, more to the point, no one’s idea of a rap production, at least until the drums enter halfway through. “Mo Better Cool” is also nuanced, though more energetic than those previous songs, with bursting horns lacing the 808 rhythms.
Cadillactica, then, is a confident piece of work even during the slower jazz rap sections. Accordingly, some of its best moments come when K.R.I.T. is at his most aggressive. On “King of the South”, he gives himself that very crown, summarizing his ascent to the top of the game (“Grew up on the country side of tawwwn/ Now I’m ballin’ under city lights”), and again referencing DJ DMD’s Third Coast classic “25 Lighters”. On the minimal but booming first half of “My Sub Pt. 3 (Big Bang)”, he barks about his 15-inch subwoofers with utmost Southern pride. Even though the song hardly shows what K.R.I.T. is capable of intellectually, it does show that he’s willing to indulge in a moment of relative ignorance if it means sounding like, well, a baller.
Oddly enough, “Mt. Olympus”, the “Control”-inspired colossus that arrived as the album’s lead single, only appears, in slightly different form, as a bonus track here. (Find the original on K.R.I.T.’s compilation mixtape from September, See Me on Top 4.) But even if it’s not a part of the album proper, it should be referenced if only to highlight the chip on K.R.I.T.’s shoulder: “Now they wanna hear a country nigga rap/ Five albums in, I sweaaarr a country nigga snap.” If there’s any doubt that he can keep up with his contemporaries, it helps that he’s enlisted the most striking guest list of his career, including a taffy-voiced E-40, a hardheaded Wiz Khalifa (both on “Mind Control”), and a satirical Lupe Fiasco (“Fuck peace, I want a plane/ And fill that bitch with cocaine,” he goes on album closer “Lost Generation”).
Unlike the more emotive guest singers here (including Saadiq, Rico Love, and Mara Hruby), the guest MCs only add to the album’s hubris; K.R.I.T. can’t help but reflect on occasion, and he’s best off doing that on his own. On “Soul Food”, featuring Saadiq, he zooms out to draw general conclusions: “In this life you live, you either the dealer or the fiend” and “People don’t make love no more/ They just fuck and they fight.” The comfort of praying breathes through “Angels”, and the similarly spiritual “Saturday = Celebration” is the most dramatic song here, period, as K.R.I.T. raps, “In the event of my demise, I won’t go kicking and screaming/ I know that God had a reason, just don’t give up believing.”
And so, the odyssey continues for the artist who, on the A$AP Ferg-featuring bonus track “Lac Lac”, says he’ll never change. True, K.R.I.T. is staying within his usual pair of poles: the detail-oriented sonic playmaker and the veritable rap star. What makes Cadillactica arguably his best full-length to date is that he’s never sounded more determined to chart every foot – or every layer of atmosphere – in between.
Essential Tracks: “Cadillactica”, “Soul Food”, and “King of the South”