At a time where mixtape culture has taken over most of the hip-hop world and major labels seem reluctant to release albums even by artists they choose to sign, it's no surprise that the two most interesting Southern rap/hip-hop albums of the year so far have a testy or at least complicated relationship with the major-label mainstream.
Live From the Underground, the Def Jam debut from Meridian, Mississippi, rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T. has been waiting in the on-deck circle for a couple of years, since his breakout 2010 mixtape K.R.I.T. Wuz Here got him signed to the venerable hip-hop label. But several other mixtapes — most notably the 2011 sequel Return of 4Eva — have come while waiting for a label-released debut. Both of those standout mixtapes even got quasi-official re-releases while Live From the Underground was circling the runway. Getting signed to a major label and having it actually release your album are two different things, as local rappers such as Three 6 Mafia, Yo Gotti, and most recently Don Trip can attest
Those mixtapes, along with K.R.I.T.'s surprisingly polished live show, introduced a rapper rooted in tradition but very much his own man — a lone street poet/hustler type consciously repeating the path of lyrical Southern rap acts like Memphis' 8Ball & MJG or earlier Mississippi-bred breakout star David Banner.
The self-produced Live From the Underground is bolder and more varied than those cohesive mixtapes and not usually for the better. Here, K.R.I.T. is more coarse at times than on his best mixtape work, as if he's trying to sound like just another opportunistic Gucci Mane/Young Jeezy-style studio hustler.
There are simpler, more repetitive chanted hooks here and a more belligerent demeanor: "I Got This," with its "Fuck these haters/Fuck these hoes" refrain. "Yeah Dats Me," where the title answers the question "Who that get money?" And "What U Mean," a nasty collaboration with put-out-or-get-out veteran Ludacris.
The worst moments feel intentionally dumbed-down and dishonest — a sop to commercial expectations now that he's on Def Jam's dime. But, thankfully, these artistic missteps are exceptions.
At his core — as established on early mixtape standouts like "Hometown Hero," "Country Shit," and "Dreamin'" — K.R.I.T. is a classicist, more reminiscent of soulful, street-level Memphis scene-starter 8Ball than later Southern stars crunk (Lil Jon), gangsta (T.I.), freaky (Outkast), or pop (Luda).
"Cool 2 Be Southern" has a swagger with which K.R.I.T. seems more comfortable, and "Money on the Floor" underscores his debt to 8Ball by inviting him and partner MJG along for the ride. But Live From the Underground mostly backloads the good stuff. "Don't Let Me Down" (a subtle Beatles reference) and the bluesy "Porchlight," with an Anthony Hamilton vocal, come at the midpoint. And then K.R.I.T. closes with a trio of more personal songs: rapping strong and sure over a laid-back piano loop on "If I Fall," telling a grounded, responsible teen-sex cautionary tale on "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," and bringing on B.B. King for some multigenerational Mississippi music on "Praying Man."
Can the immensely promising K.R.I.T. be himself and be who the marketplace seems to want at the same time? Live From the Underground is a tightrope act that wobbles and doesn't quite tumble, but it does leave reason for doubt.
The other standout Southern rap album so far this year might be a testament to the value of not having to worry about that balancing act anymore. Atlanta veteran Killer Mike has been where Big K.R.I.T. is now. A onetime Outkast protégé, Mike was introduced on the duo's 2001 single "The Whole World" and followed that up two years later with a strong debut album for Sony, Monster, which featured the terrific single "A.D.I.D.A.S." But Mike's major-label moment was brief, and he's been in indie land for most of the past decade. Through four little-heard albums and various mixtapes and guest spots, Killer Mike's produced some good music — the highlight "Ric Flair" improbably name-checks former Grizzlies star Pau Gasol — but nothing as bracing as the new R.A.P. Music, released in mid-May.
The album was produced, improbably, by white New York indie-rap stalwart El-P, best known for his '90s group Company Flow, and El-P approaches R.A.P. Music in full "Rick Rubin at Def Jam" mode: booming, rock-schooled rap reminiscent of Raising Hell-era Run-D.M.C. or Licensed to Ill-era Beastie Boys — full of hard, clattering beats, metallic guitars, arcade blips, and the judicious deployment of some classic samples.
Killer Mike declaims over this racket with a purpose that unites Public Enemy's politics, N.W.A.'s "eff the police" ethos, and the chitlin-circuit soul of 8Ball & MJG (yep, them again). Along the way, he's always his own man: Embedding references to Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King Jr. into hard street-rap scenarios. Being honest about who he is, with acknowledgments about starting — but not finishing — college and working for UPS. And, on "Don't Die," making it clear how he feels about modern rap's 1 percent aspirations: "I'm a public enemy because I'm cold lampin'/And I don't give a fuck about a party in the Hamptons/And I don't five a fuck about a muthafuckin' Forbes list/As far as I'm concerned that's a muthafuckin' whores list."
This aesthetic look back doesn't feel retro, most miraculously of all making circa-1988 rap sounds and perspectives contemporary on the centerpiece "Reagan," a catalog of familiar conspiracy theories (crack cocaine as CIA plot) and complaints that should be dated on contact but instead triumphs through the force of Mike's conviction. He makes his chronological polemic relevant first by making it personal ("The end of the Reagan era/I'm like 11, 12-uh/Old enough to understand the shit had changed forever") and then by connecting the dots to the current recession economy and "meet the new boss" sense of political anger.
Halfway home, it's the rap album of the year. Play loud at any club, disco, lounge, house basement or block party, car stereo, stoop, or at any other social gathering. On whatever boomin' system you can muster.