If there’s anything Big K.R.I.T. doesn’t lack, it’s ambition.
In between the three years that fans waited for the follow-up to the Mississippi rapper and producer's second retail album on Def Jam—an eternity in the internet age—he walked away from his major label home and saw the momentum of his career cave in like a bad soufflé.
Last week, K.R.I.T. returned with his incredible double album, 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, but the path the 31-year-old traveled down to get his promising career back on track wasn't easy.
In 2010, K.R.I.T. conquered the world with K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, an album released as a free, downloadable mixtape, which could easily measure itself against the best hip-hop works available for sale that year. His voice and Southern drawl were, especially when he got hyped, reminiscent of Pimp C, which also mirrored his production style, a modern update of the beloved UGK sound, wherein blues, soul and gospel mesh beautifully with trunk-rattling 808s. K.R.I.T. doesn’t shy away from trap drums, but his beats typically sound warm rather than threatening—more Organized Noize than Young Thug, but undeniably Dirty South.
Lyrically, K.R.I.T. is equal scoops of T.I. and Talib Kweli, complete with a healthy dash of Scarface’s spirituality and introspection. The end result is a fully-formed artist who is a direct descendant of his influences but wholly his own man, though, one who can also produce his own delicious beats. Someone who offers a total package like that, of such high quality, and has also built up quite a buzz already, is an undeniably attractive asset to a record label and, of course, it didn’t take long for former G-Unit general Sha Money XL (who was top brass at Def Jam back then), to offer him a contract at the legendary New York label.
Talent aplenty and the backing of one of the biggest record labels in the business set the stage for K.R.I.T. to grow into one of hip-hop's next icons. If T.I. was the king of the South at the time of his signing, K.R.I.T. was surely its crown prince. In 2011, he released Return of 4Eva, his second critically acclaimed tape, and announced his debut album Live From The Underground soon after.
In the meantime, the highly productive artist didn't sway from his mixtape roots. In early 2012, K.R.I.T. released 4 Eva N A Day. On its cover, a kid sits on a wooden porch, with a Bible left of him and a church in the background, while he gazes at a Cadillac parked in the parking lot of a strip club to his right. In place of the Bible on his other side, there is a liquor bottle. That duality—and the struggle that accompanies it—would form a recurring theme in his discography. For the third time, his beautifully bluesy rap songs garnered praise and countless downloads, providing him with a rarely repeated hat-trick.
Three carefully crafted projects with sonic and thematic cohesiveness, none deserving of the mixtape label. They’re all albums, they just weren't purchased in a record store. A few months after the conclusion of this much-lauded trifecta, K.R.I.T.'s first album with a barcode finally arrived.
To be entirely clear: Live from the Underground is absolutely not a bad album. It just so happened that his first commercial release was also the weakest of the bunch. It simply didn’t have that cohesiveness for which he was famous, offering some sort of diet-version Big K.R.I.T. in place of the original flavor—full of savory fats—of his mixtapes.
What went wrong? Had he kept on constructing the record for too long, losing focus in the process? Or did Def Jam slide into the director’s chair a few times too many, dulling the vision that his tapes contained? Whatever the answer, with anticipation for his debut album at a fever pitch, the first dent in his armor couldn’t have come at a worse moment.
Retail follow-up Cadillactica was received well, and K.R.I.T. continued to release solid mixtapes (one of which, #12For12, featured twelve freestyles released over the course of twelve hours), but he never really regained the momentum he had lost. With so much promise left unfulfilled, the attention of the audience seemed to slip away, and Def Jam apparently lost the will to invest further in a star player.
With 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, a double album featuring a ‘Big K.R.I.T.’ side and a ‘Justin Scott’ (his government name) side, K.R.I.T. has forcefully reminded the world of his prestigious talents. On the album's K.R.I.T. half, he mostly spits swift and supple verses, brimming with confidence. It's the side of stomping bangers, from the T.I.-assisted "Big Bank," which is full of frenetic chipmunk soul, the UGK-tribute "Ride Wit Me" featuring both Bun and Pimp, and "Subenstein (My Sub IV)," a serious workout for your subwoofer.
On the Justin Scott half, we're greeted by more personal raps. K.R.I.T. creates a bit more space for his singing voice and momentarily trades the bounce for richer orchestrations. The fact that he’s a top-notch producer is evident in the supreme balance he strikes throughout. His sound is always glowing and warm, without ever losing that bump. The combination of Southern blues, gospel and hip-hop has rarely sounded more natural than it does across the album's 22 tracks.
Big K.R.I.T. also has a knack for delivering a sweeping horn arrangement without having it sound needlessly overwhelming or ostentatious, and his voice can switch between the snarl inherited from Pimp C and flow as melodic as it is soulful.
The duality mentioned earlier returns as well, very literally on a song like "Mixed Messages": “I got a whole lotta, mixed messages, in my songs / Am I wrong to feel this way?” he sings, while juxtaposing his internal contradictions in the song’s single verse. While on "Drinking Sessions," K.R.I.T. airs a multitude of grievances, including some left by his time on Def Jam: “To them, I was like a check / Another five years of slaving and then it’s on to the next / I was tryna be what I envisioned as a child / A king ain’t a man of God when ain’t no church in the wild.”
It can’t be a coincidence that this astonishingly impressive double album is the first retail release on K.R.I.T.’s own independent label, Multi Alumni. The idiosyncratic artist from Down South has recaptured control over his career, and the end result is the best album he's ever released.
On the cover for 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, instead of the crown in his logo, K.R.I.T. himself is pictured against a stark, black background, while he looks over his shoulder at the world. A painterly, golden sun sits behind his head, mirroring the way saints are often portrayed in religious imagery. Is it a halo? If it is, it would be fitting. After all, we’re witnessing the remarkable resurrection of Big K.R.I.T.