Monday, November 6, 2017

album review: '4eva is a mighty long time' by big k.r.i.t.

I've always been of the opinion that Big K.R.I.T. should be so much bigger than he is.

And really, from the more people I've talked to, that's not an uncommon opinion: Big K.R.I.T. seemed like the guy destined to propel his career to the stars, driven off of mixtapes that could often been perceived as dynamic and potent records in their own right. Huge hooks, sharp writing that drew upon Southern hip-hop traditions without ever feeling like a gimmick or old-fashioned, and he produced the majority of it himself with enough flash and polish to court the radio, Big K.R.I.T. showed incredible versatility and promise, and when he got signed by Def Jam, everyone thought it would be his ticket to the top...

And that didn't happen. In fact, if I were to look at utterly tragic missteps in hip-hop management, it would be that Big K.R.I.T. never took off in the mid 2010s the way he should - and yes, you could make the argument that those major label projects were not as good as the mixtapes - in that they were decent to really good but never quite great - but I've covered entirely too much mediocre music that's impacted the Hot 100, whoever was promoting or managing him screwed this up big time. So it was no surprise when Big K.R.I.T. and Def Jam parted ways in 2016, keeping the mixtapes steady as he prepared a double album of material for independent release. Now to some extent I was a little concerned about this - to me double albums are always a risky proposition, especially if it becomes clear it could have been cut down. And the truth is that between the albums and mixtapes Big K.R.I.T. has put out a lot of solid material that has nevertheless done plenty to fill and nearly saturate his lane, and there was a part of me that felt for this to really stand out and resonate it had to be a home run for him, a swing for the fences, really elevate his sound to his best. So did we get it?

So here’s the funny thing – I was gearing up for this review to be pretty lengthy, as you’d expect for anyone covering a comeback double album where Big K.R.I.T. was aiming bigger than ever… and yet with every listen to 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time I’m left feeling that this record doesn’t so much surprise the audience but reflects a refinement of style. It also gives me the impression that if Def Jam didn’t think this was marketable and was leaning on him to water things down they screwed up royally, because not only is this album among Big K.R.I.T.’s best, it also shows itself as plenty accessible in its own right, with terrific melodic hooks, a breadth of lavish production that spans multiple genres, and content that would likely play just fine to Big K.R.I.T.’s audience.

And like always, the key words with Big K.R.I.T. are tied to versatility: this is a rapper who can play in moody, introspective territory while bringing massive bangers indebted to southern hip-hop, and it never feels inconsistent with who he is as an MC – mostly because he’s only growing more expressive and layered as a performer. As a rapper I’ve always liked this guy: an aggressive rasp that backs bars that are flush with the detail to never feel interchangeable, along with charismatic and diverse flows that show he’s plenty capable of riding damn near anything and doing it better – but what really impressed me was the expansion of his emotive delivery. I don’t think he’s an exceptional singer – although a song like ‘Keep the devil Off’ he’s pretty damn credible - but he is naturally expressive and even songs that require him to play in tougher territory like ‘Drinking Sessions’ are delivered exceptionally well – hell, as much as it feels reminiscent of Kendrick’s ‘u’, I think I might actually like this better! Hell, I’d certainly take him over that lisping mess that Lloyd delivers on ‘1999’, which is easily the worst track on the entire double album.

Granted, it helps that the tones and guest singers – aside from Lloyd - he’s drawing on are more than capable of supporting him, from Cee-Lo Green dropping an uncharacteristic but decent rap verse on the flat-out excellent ‘Get Up 2 Come Down’ opposite some great melodic touches with the trumpet, all the way to Bilal, Jill Scott, and especially Joi belting their tracks on the second disc against some of the lushest soul instrumentals I’ve heard all year, most of which Big K.R.I.T. produced himself. And this ties into the second reason why I’d argue Def Jam was utterly crazy to not give this guy full creative freedom, because not only does this record sound expensive and clean in a way that belies his more braggadocious songs, but it’s nearly always anchored in real melody to back up his hooks, be it coming from liquid guitars, horns, or a lush watery sample that you can tell could easily be traced to the greats of southern hip-hop – I might not be wild about the hook on ‘Ride Wit Me’, but if there’s a guy who can sample the late Pimp C and call up Bun B to sound completely convincing, it’s Big K.R.I.T.. He gets T.I. on ‘Big Bank’ and it’s a natural pairing on a banger, but I think I might be more impressed by the slick cascades behind the gorgeous ‘Aux Cord’, or the oily, organ-infused funk of ‘Keep the devil Off’ or the choppy tone behind ‘Mixed Messages’ against a trap drum line that is far more complex than your average radio banger. Granted, the second disc of this project is aiming for more ambitious material, drawing on gospel and showing a greater breadth of instrumentation like the guitars and pianos on ‘Miss Georgia Fornia’ to the melancholic blend of piano and horns on ‘Drinking Sessions’ to the stunningly rich take on jazz that fills ‘The Light’… but I’m not going to lie, for his fourth track in the sub series ‘Subenstein’ might be one of my favourites just for the melodic interplay in the tuba with the distant keys, guitars, scratching, electric crackling, and a trunk-knocking beat that even sustains a remarkable beat switch. And it’s that diversity that helps so many of these tracks actually stand out – for a twenty-two song double album, even if I will say the record can drag a bit at the end of each disc, it goes down remarkably easy.

Now granted, this does take us to the content, and the one criticism of Big K.R.I.T. that I’ve always been mixed on: his content, especially at this point in his career, can feel a tad predictable. His flexing is smarter and more layered, but it’s still flexing, so there have been those who have argued that he could afford to go deeper or surprise the audience and chooses not to. And I’m not sure I can agree with that, at least not entirely – yeah, especially on the first disc the content might play in an accessible lane, but the presentation more than makes up for conventionality – and even then, I’d argue there’s less of it than you might think. For one, Big K.R.I.T. on average tends to be wittier and can take southern tropes in fun directions – hell, that ‘Classic Interlude’ might be one of the best skits I’ve heard on a rap album in years! But even beyond that – and his obvious love for the south and its music, illustrated with fantastic detail on ‘Aux Cord’ – where the content picks up that considerable depth is on the second disc, where you might be able to call some of the details of Big K.R.I.T.’s sensitivity, but there’s more to it. Hell, it’s early on where we get ‘Mixed Messages’, a track where he even directly addresses his versatility as a performer and the demands from all sides, and he’s very much aware of the contradictions it presents. Or for as much as he loves his home state of Mississippi on ‘Miss Georgia Fornia’, he knows he’ll likely have to leave it behind in order to pursue his passion, and it plays out like a southern gothic romance in the best way possible. It helps that for the most part, Big K.R.I.T. is not putting on airs of violence beyond what is absolutely necessary – he’s the protagonist of his story, and is plenty self-reflective when he messes up, which plays out in heartbreaking detail on ‘Drinking Sessions’, where his grief at his grandmother’s death mingles with socially charged anger, resolving with his own awkward self-consciousness at knowing he’s exposed something of himself. And the fact that this can still feel credible coming after an entire disc of bangers and a fair few songs that play for easy cool, that’s humanizing in a powerful way, especially as you can tell there’s a part of him heartbroken by the ascendency in fame and success and the loneliness it brings.

Now is any of this profoundly deep or something you haven’t heard before in hip-hop? Eh, not really, and if I were to criticize the content I do wish he had taken that step and tied more of this into a thematically sound whole – if you’re going for a double album, you’ve got the time to do it. But really, that’s nitpicking an otherwise pretty great collection of songs, with consistently high quality production and bars that for the most absolutely succeed in what this record sets out to do. Easily the best of his official albums and rivaling his best mixtapes, Big K.R.I.T. made a Southern record that embraces the best of his heritage while still feeling modern, accessible, and frequently fun as hell, so for me it’s a solid 8/10 and one of the easiest recommendations I can make. Folks, this is just damn great Southern hip-hop with real class, soul, and well-framed introspection and with no shortage of bangers, it gives you pretty much everything you could want out of Big K.R.I.T. – and if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is, check this out!

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