A role player is one of the most damning labels in the NBA. On the surface, it’s an admirable idea, and players like Toni Kukoc in the ‘90s and Chandler Parsons today are presumably admirable men. But being a role player has a glass ceiling; what you do becomes your identity. Your potential gets stifled in favor of becoming a cog in a larger, jersey-wearing construct. We have those in hip-hop. They’re called consistent rappers.
If great hip-hop draws on communal experiences to astound, consistent rappers do the drawing without much astounding. It’s usually because of some fatal flaw. J. Cole disguises how he’s a composite of his influences with skin-deep altruism. Big K.R.I.T., his second-tier peer, is more versatile in how he catalyzes his influences for either bangers or accessible southern-fried homages. But his records are too often slathered with nostalgia, and K.R.I.T’s just-passable personality reduces his sounds to stew.
K.R.I.T. was on to something in Cadillactica, the imperfect comeback album that proved he still hasn’t peaked. On its best moments, K.R.I.T. reached past his soul-sampling inspirations straight toward the soul itself. Tracks like “Soul Food” recalled Stax as well as Goodie Mob. It was southern soul revival when it became an anomaly; the next year was March Madness 12 months straight.
Perhaps the road fork that illustrates the cover of It’s Better This Way isn’t supposed to be a meta-reference to the set’s content, which instead is sequenced as a Big K.R.I.T. three-part sampler. But the results are the same, K.R.I.T. split between different potential goals. After the first two sections meander, the final four tracks find him spinning Memphis-roasted sounds into sublimity. His distinctive drawl meshes with the woozy soundscape for some of the most engrossing blues rap of the year.
Big K.R.I.T. gives his labelmates life in “Got Me Thru”, which closes with a poignant set from Big SANT (“When the choices wasn’t even spoke, the rent or the lights/ We all in the dark beggin’ for sparks”). Soon after teaming up with BJ the Chicago Kid for the spiritual “Can’t Be Still”, Big K.R.I.T. becomes genuinely affecting in “Party Tonight”, stretching syllables for resonance (“Why you shooting? That shit so stupid … And you gain the world just to lose it”). The closing title track — an anti-radio, pro-real rap number — would be a too tidy of a finish if what came before didn’t prove that Big K.R.I.T. wasn’t at his best when tapping into that soul.
It’s Better This Way kicks off with the mile-a-minute confessional “King Pt. 4” and trunk-rattling “86”. Both are solid, but the momentum dies when the mixtape moves on to the unfocused middle act, whose tracks feel like approximations of throwback-style hits instead of fully developed ideas. Maybe the production is passable, but they’re wounded by verses that do little more than serve as paeans to southern vices (whips, church women, bank account commas). The guests don’t add much either. In “Shake Em Off”, K Camp boasts, “Shout out K.R.I.T., he fuck with me,” which pretty much synopsizes his presence. He’s simply happy to be here, much like the others K.R.I.T. decided to invite.
It’s mixed packages like these that make it unclear what part of his style Big K.R.I.T. is trying to reform: the southern thrills revivalist or the soul curator. The latter seems more lucrative, but he ought to decide soon, lest he continue to be considered consistent.
Essential Tracks: “86”, “Party Tonight”