Everyone loves an underdog, but even more, they love to be the underdog, even if the evidence suggests otherwise. The Tea Party paints itself as a grass-roots middle-class movement, but it consists mostly of white middle-class suburbanites, the biggest voting bloc. This year's Miami Heat championship team was granted a kind of reverse fuck-the-haters comeback narrative, even though all the initial eye-rolling from the media came about because their lineup was so ridiculously stacked.
It's understandable why Mississippi star Big K.R.I.T. doesn't completely own his dominance, even though his new album went straight to number one on the Billboard rap charts. Hip-hop always has been about showing off, but in the depths of a recession, brag-logic gets fuzzy: Kanye's egomaniacal antics made for some funny headlines, with his mouth and One Percenter lyrics earning ire toward him; Rick Ross took flak for being "The Man" he railed against; first name Drake, last name Hated.
K.R.I.T. was vaulted to the top of the charts by a tight consecutive streak of quality mix tapes, including K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and Return of 4Eva, which paired his minimal rhymes with a high social-intelligence quotient. His self-produced new album, Live from the Underground, shows K.R.I.T. hanging onto his underdog status, even though the record marks a significant departure both sonically and commercially.
K.R.I.T. has been, at times, rightly bestowed the "conscious rap" tag, but he maintains club accessibility. The album's intro skit, "LFU300MA," skewers the music industry with the kind of weird voice-acting characterization that Atlanta masters Outkast perfected. And B.B. King sings the chorus on the shackles-to-freedom slave narrative "Praying Man," one of the album's select moments of soulful austerity.
At the same time, K.R.I.T. features a who's who of Southern rap guest spots to contribute to the album's trunk-rattlers and club anthems. 8Ball & MJG join 2 Chainz and K.R.I.T. on "Money on the Floor," which shows all involved digging on many of the usual pimp tropes. Even the production is rife with a top-shelf array of major-label budget instrumentation (there's a damn flügelhorn on "Cool 2 Be Southern").
Album title notwithstanding, K.R.I.T. is making his mainstream statement in a year where Southern rap is king. Atlanta powerhouse Killer Mike emerged earlier this year with his El-P-produced comeback gem, R.A.P. Music, chock-full of political screeds and reckless beats. On the tail of 2010's monstrously successful Teflon Don, Rick Ross was declared by MTV this year's hottest MC, for what that's worth.
It's almost to the point where not being from the South can prove detrimental. Flossed-out slow-flowing Brooklynite A$AP Rocky turned heads last year with his down-tempo codeine raps, which were heavily indebted to Houston's chopped-and-screwed style. Rocky stuck close to the cloud-rap manifesto, which declares that geography is no longer an immutable factor in determining style and influence. Don't go telling that to K.R.I.T.: He takes every opportunity to remind the listener of his proud Southern lineage.
On Return of 4Eva standout "Country Shit," he espouses deep-fried life with a couple of Southern veterans: Atlanta dirty bird Ludacris and low-key Houston player Bun B. The video for Underground's first single, "I Got This," was shot in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, with slow pans of local landmarks and his name back-lit huge on a decades-old movie theater marquee. "We make it cool to be Southern," he boasts in front of huge brass blasts, as if crunk never catapulted Southern rap to the top.
There's a comfortable Christian adage that speaks of being "in, but not of" the world, to count yourself as an outsider within the earthly confines you have to walk. K.R.I.T. thankfully is keeping it humble, but by his next album, he surely will have gotten used to the view.