No point dancing around it: Yes, Big K.R.I.T. sells out on Live From the Underground. It was unavoidable: No rapper goes into the Def Jam sausage factory and emerges without a 2 Chainz feature on a song about strippers. Yes, there are songs here that never would have made his two superlative mixtapes (K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and Return of 4Eva), or even that one he put out earlier this year that was a snooze (4Eva N A Day). Yes, R&B singers are brought in to try to make radio hits, and they almost succeed. Yes, K.R.I.T. suddenly seems overly concerned with “hooks” all of a sudden. All of these things were expected in the two-year delay and pushback process that was Live From the Underground’s release strategy, and all of these things happen.
But I’m having a hard time coming out resolutely negative on Live From the Underground. When you consider it, it’s remarkable this album even exists; K.R.I.T. seemed like the most likely recent major rap label signee to exist in label purgatory forever, popping up once a quarter to promise an album. K.R.I.T. producing anything resembling commercial product seemed impossible. Instead, Live From the Underground exists, is produced entirely by K.R.I.T., and is able to hang on to (roughly) half of the independent spirit that made K.R.I.T. one of the most consistently satisfying mixtape rappers out right now, while still meeting label obligations for songs with “radio potential.”
Like with Yelawolf’s Radioactive—another album by a mixtape rapper in the middle of selling his soul—Live From the Underground can be neatly divided in half by the stuff meant to satisfy the label, and stuff meant to satisfy the rapper. So, while K.R.I.T. spends the first half talking about nasty women with Ludacris (“What You Mean”), he spends the second half delivering the most earnest paean to the spiritual power of smoking weed ever with Devin the Dude (“Hydroplaning”). While he tries hard to smash the hook of “Cool 2 Be Southern” into your frontal lobe and yells at hoes on “My Sub Pt. 2,” he’s also delivering the semi-motivational “If I Fall,” the album’s most likely commercial hit.
But not all the commercial stuff is entirely bad, and not all the traditionally K.R.I.T. material is perfect either. “If I Fall” was clearly engineered by A&R and has a hook from Melanie Fiona, but it’s one of the best tracks on the album. “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” is probably the corniest, cliché-filled K.R.I.T. song, a mellow ode to his dad helping him ride his bike (among other things). Lead singles “I Got This” and “Yeah Dats Me” are the two funnest tracks on the album, while “Don’t Let Me Down” is a rewrite of about 12 songs in K.R.I.T.’s catalog about how tough it is to have a relationship as a rapper.
We spend a lot of time lamenting how labels chew up underground heroes like B.o.B or Lupe and spit out “Airplanes.” That K.R.I.T. was able to put out an album on Def Jam in 2012 with a song about slavery called “Praying Man,” which samples a church service and features a hook by B.B. King, is a Herculean accomplishment. Live From the Underground is an album of compromises, an attempt by K.R.I.T. to kowtow the pop-rap line. That he fails was pre-ordained. That he was able to keep as much of himself in the transition from the underground to the mainstream is what is admirable.