For many years, rap from the south of the United States was considered a minor and overly-local sub-genre, maybe as an extension of the general contempt for the people from the area that characterises more cosmopolitan places such as New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Boston. Southern rappers have always been treated with disdain, and, behind closed doors, seen as hicks with gold teeth sitting on their porch all day drinking purple drank or dry-humping in striptease clubs at night. Artists like UGK, Scarface, and Outkast helped improve that image, not only because of the great value of their music, which went far beyond their geographical surroundings, but also because of their attitude and the way they acted within the music industry, showing at least as much talent and savoir faire as the big names from the most important cities in the country.
The golden age of the dirty south, however, has been over for a few years now, and at the end of the past decade it seemed as if the community had once again closed its doors, taking their local tics to the extreme and shirking the responsibility inherited from said artists to export their roots to the rest of the world. That's why the explosive appearance of Jay Electronica and Big K.R.I.T. a few years back set off all the alarms once more, drawing our attention back to what was cooking down there. In the case of the former it was his enormous talent rather than his contribution to the southern cause that did it, as the few songs he had released up to that point were closer to New York boom bap than to horny Houston funk or the bounce sound of his native New Orleans. But in the case of Big K.R.I.T., a Mississippi native, it did have a lot to do with the revitalisation of a lifestyle that is also extrapolated to the songs and sounds. “Return Of 4Eva” and “4Eva N A Day”, the best two mixtapes he's released so far, showed his free spirit, with no prejudice or attachments of any kind, updating the southern sound with elements, ideas and influences from classic East Coast hip-hop, and with lyrics that show an unusual introspective maturity.
And, as has become the general trend in the new North American hip-hop world, where the mixtape is now more relevant than the official major-label album, “Live From The Underground”, his highly-anticipated debut on Def Jam, pales in comparison to its freely downloadable predecessors. It's only logical, and it's been explained here and elsewhere on numerous occasions: the mixtape allows for a kind of creative freedom that the retail album doesn't, because of issues with sample clearance, pressure from the label bosses, or simply because of the lack of the immediacy that a mixtape offers. Regardless, in this case the problem is not that Big K.R.I.T. felt restricted by the Def Jam executives, it's just that one gets the impression that he didn't save his best stuff for his album debut, but instead put everything into his street releases. There will be few titles better than this album in 2012, but one can’t shake a certain feeling of coldness and uneasiness.
How is it possible that an album as good as this one could leave such a sour taste in one’s mouth? The answer lies in the expectations, which he himself created with a couple of free albums that deserved to be official ones, and which had made us boundlessly euphoric about their excellence. Listening to “Live From The Underground” without prejudice is impossible if you've heard the mixtapes in question, but if you do manage to forget about them, you'll hear that this is one of the most important major-label hip-hop albums released in recent times. For many reasons, all of them of enormous artistic significance. First of all, because of how true he stays to his roots. Many thought that on his Def Jam debut, Big K.R.I.T. would opt for neutrality, aiming for a sound that would do well in all the different areas of American hip-hop. However, not only did the rapper ignore the predictions (and even, I dare say, the advice from the folks at the A&R label), but he recorded his most essentially southern album to date, right between Outkast and UGK, without ever giving in to the wishes or impulses of anyone but himself. It's also a declaration of love for his surroundings and influences, as risky as that may be with regards to his appeal, making it an expression of personality that gives us all something to think about.
It's something to think about, and here comes the second reason: because it leaves the influence and weight the major labels can have on their artists' careers up for debate. The fact that Big K.R.I.T. does as he pleases on this album, without regards for the needs and demands of his label bosses, shows a kind of artistic dedication that is both admirable and revealing, and which could be helpful for Jay Electronica, who is in a very similar situation with what is going to be his debut on Roc Nation. “Live From The Underground” contains no singles of any kind; it goes where it wants to, reviving the legacy of Goodie Mob, UGK and the better part of the Rap-A-Lot catalogue with stunning naturalness and sincerity. The instruments come to the front, the bouncy beats carry the rapper's voice, and there are no pop links. It's funky rap, smelling of fried chicken and BBQ sauce, old-school, without any tricks, classic in its forms but at the same time ragingly modern and fresh.
And third: the fact that a major label would accept such a lyrically dense first album is surprising at the very least. And something to be grateful for, of course. Big K.R.I.T. confirms everything his mixtapes suggested in that sense: he likes intimate tales (memories of deceased relatives, life lessons, sentimental openness, a certain preference for melancholy), and he knows how to fit that into his sound, which, even on the more festive tracks, maintains the spiritual and contemplative air of his highly poetic lyrics. “Live From The Underground” especially shines lyrically, because that's where he breaks loose from the conventions of his geographical surroundings, looking for a distinct personality. I can think of no better successor for Scarface, the best rapper the American South has ever brought forth. And that is quite an achievement.