Before Drake invaded terrestrial radio with nods to DJ Screw and ESG, before Lil Jon made “crunk” a household term, before Jay-Z thought it was cool to put UGK on a single, there was the Dungeon Family. The Atlanta collective didn’t put Southern rap on the map, but they did make significant inroads in carrying their region’s sound into the hip-hop community at large, and eventually, the charts. In quality and consistency, the original run of the Dungeon Family has scarcely been touched by anyone since, least of all the members themselves. Cee-Lo’s a pop star with a TV show. Andre 3000 is a rap Haley’s comet. Big Boi’s record label let his solo debut rot for three calendar years. Organized Noise’s production talent is woefully underused as of late, and many of the remaining Dungeon Family members have gone milkbox. Enter Big K.R.I.T., who, moreso than any up-and-coming rapper, has carried the torch for the strand of soulful Southern rap popularized by the OutKast, Goodie Mob, and company. Live from the Underground, K.R.I.T.’s oft-delayed debut album, has finally arrived, and it’s a tightrope walk, tickling ‘90s nostalgia without kowtowing to it and courting mainstream attention without coldly aping what’s on the charts to get it.
It’s a tenuous business these days, getting on the radio without looking like you’re trying to, and it’s an objective that K.R.I.T. fails and succeeds at nearly in equal measure. In gussying up his pensive Southern soul for mass consumption, he sometimes cuts a figure at loggerheads with the rest of his discography. The front end of Live from the Underground posits a grip of flossy songs about stealing girlfriends and fancy cars against the down-to-earth, thought-provoking fare of the back end. The full picture is of an artist still in search of his own lane, trying on different selves and abandoning whatever doesn’t fit. The stripper-loving lothario of “What U Mean” and “Pull Up” shares space with the “don’t suck and fuck and run amok” safe sex advocate of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” Elsewhere the unapologetic pothead of “Hydroplaning” finds remorse on “If I Fall.” Every rapper wants you to think they’re the coolest person in the room, but Live from the Underground’s pedantic caveats suggest that K.R.I.T. doesn’t wholly buy into the souped up version of himself on display here. But commercial K.R.I.T.’s problems aren’t exclusively philosophical.
Live from the Underground’s glaring flaw is a songwriting issue. Like so many “conscious” MCs before him, K.R.I.T. has trouble packing choruses with the same wit and vibrancy of his verses. Many of the song titles here are catchphrases, and most of their choruses involve manic repetition of those catchphrases. “Pull Up” finds K.R.I.T. repeatedly deadpanning “When I pull up, it’s over.” On “My Sub, Pt. 2: The Jackin’,” he blabs “I still got my sub, ho” ad nauseam as if it wasn’t clear the first time around. “I Got This” repeats its name six times, and “Yeah Dats Me,” both the most egregious offender and, somehow, the one that works best, goes for the jugular with fifteen repetitions of the titular affirmation. K.R.I.T. is terrible with choruses all of a sudden, and Live from the Underground’s jackhammer refrains routinely live or die on the strength of the production anchoring them, which, to his credit, is routinely engaging.
Say what you will about K.R.I.T. the rapper, but K.R.I.T. the producer is one of the best of his generation. Live from the Underground’s production puts K.R.I.T.’s full bag of tricks on display, employing sounds ranging from the lean synth-laced of “What U Mean” to the lumbering G-funk of “I Got This” and “Money on the Floor” and the classicist boom bap of “If I Fall.” Outside players and organic sounds are brought in to open things up where necessary. The horn section in “Cool 2 Be Southern” makes the track pop, and the guitar accents in “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Porchlight” add new layers of texture and emotion. “Live from the Underground (Reprise),” the piano-and-harmonica jam that closes the album, nails the lush, vibrant soul underpinning that OutKast perfected on Aquemini. And if that isn’t enough, “Yeah Dats Me” is a poignant reminder that K.R.I.T. is still a wizard with samples when he wants to be. The guy’s a beast on the boards, if not always in the booth.
As major label rap debut albums go, Live from the Underground is a relative anomaly in that the artist seems to have escaped with most of his integrity intact. Yes, he tries a little too hard to seem cool in spots, and, no, he isn’t really fooling anyone, but at least he’s not preening in flashy videos for songs fed to him by his label as others in his position have. All in all the kid did all right. Live from the Underground isn’t the year-end listicle fodder that its acclaimed predecessors have been, but the jump from internet sensation to Def Jam soldier left K.R.I.T.’s style and character largely uncompromised. There’s something to be said for a major label rap debut that doesn’t sound tampered with in 2012, right?