Sunday, November 16, 2014

album review: 'cadillactica' by big k.r.i.t.

It's one of the most common stories in music. You have a young, aspiring artist, an independent spirit who makes impressive music with depth, complexity, and real emotion, doing it with skill and passion and intellect. He gathers buzz, builds up a fanbase, and is poised to smash into the mainstream. And then he finally signs to a big label... and it all falls apart. Suddenly the money gets involved and to guarantee an investment, the artist is compelled to make the same homogeneous crap we all see. Nothing changes, the artist gets dispirited, and the choices are stark: lash out and get dropped from the label; give in to the machine and lose your artistic integrity; or somehow manage to hold things together and try to maintain a balance.

And to me, the artist who has managed to hold that third option reasonably well was Big K.R.I.T. He originally struck me with his early mixtapes with bringing some impressive rapping, production, and content to his material that was both tempered by real introspection and definitely had the possibility of crossover appeal thanks to his very radio-friendly production. But when he dropped that first album Live From The Underground in 2012, many - and I'd include myself in that group - were a little disappointed. I mean, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either, just another radio-friendly hip-hop record featuring a great rapper delivering cliched content with occasional snippets of real brilliance. He managed to follow it up with King Remembered In Time in 2013, another mixtape that featured some more varied production, and it was pretty good, but at this point it was starting to get obvious that Big K.R.I.T. was falling towards a pattern. Not a bad pattern, mind you, but I found myself thinking he could be pushing himself harder on more thoughtful tracks or even aiming for stronger, punchier club bangers. I wouldn't quite call it a holding pattern, but it was becoming familiar and I had the feeling Big K.R.I.T. could do more. 

And it started looking like he would. The first promotional single was 'Mt. Olympus' and though it wouldn't show up on the standard issue of Cadillactica, it showed Big K.R.I.T. with more fire and potency than I had seen in a while with great bars. And it was enough to get me enthused to really dive into this record, which has been getting critical acclaim across the board and drawing comparisons to acts like OutKast - did he pull it off?

Well, I wouldn't go that far, but Cadillactica is still pretty damn good across the board. I wouldn't call it great or without duds - there are a fair share of decisions across the board from instrumentation to lyrics that probably weren't for the best - but I couldn't really pinpoint a singular issue on this record outside of a series of small elements that just didn't click. And that being said, some of the elements that didn't click for me are things have always kind of irked me about Big K.R.I.T., and fans that can more easily connect will likely be able to overlook them without question.

So let's start with Big K.R.I.T. himself. Let me stress that while I prefer his more serious, conscious side, he is the sort of technically skilled rapper that can make your standard issue luxury rap work pretty damn well, and he's got the charisma that made a similar formula work for many rappers out of the south. In other words, while he likes talking about cars on songs like 'My Sub Part 3 (Big Bang)' or on the borderline-love song 'Do You Love Me For Real', he can bring a certain amount of wit and charisma to these tracks that does make them work for rap with mainstream appeal. Hell, as much as I found the hook for the title track to be a little basic, Big K.R.I.T. had enough energy to boost the track up. And while songs like 'Soul Food' and 'Saturdays = Celebration' are more of what I prefer to hear from Big K.R.I.T., I'm not going to deny that straightforward bangers like 'Mo' Better Cool' can work just as well. What I do appreciate more about Big K.R.I.T. is his sincerity - yeah, a song like 'Third Eye' can come across as a little corny - and he knows it - it's honestly charming enough that it works coming from him.

I wish I could say the same thing for some of his guest stars, though. Not the artists on the hooks, mind you - Raphael Saadiq, Rico Love, and Mara Hruby all do a good job, and Jamie N Commons is quietly becoming a singer on hooks I really like, thanks to his killer work last year with Eminem on 'Desperation'. But his choice of guest stars is a little more shaky - I didn't mind Big Sant and Bun B on their verses, but E-40 and Wiz Khalifa do nothing for 'Mind Control', easily the worst song on the album with an exaggerated hook that seemed to be trying to go for an Andre 3000 vibe and instead came across as just plain gross. And then there's Lupe Fiasco... and look, I find Lupe Fiasco to be a political rapper who repeatedly delivers interesting content, albeit a little preachy. But I can't stand him on features because he never has the chance to fully articulate his politics and it feels boiled down to buzzwords. i get the point of his sarcasm on 'Lost Generation', but when he's saying we should be talking about the military industrial complex and how they don't play conscious material in the clubs - when in reality Big K.R.I.T. is probably one of the few rappers who has the balance to make it work in that environment - it comes across as strikingly out-of-place.

The thing is that Big K.R.I.T. does have some well-articulated ideas on this album. His overarching album concept relating the creation of art to making love is a little thinly sketched, with the strongest callbacks being early on, a little on the track 'Soul Food', and on 'Lost Generation', but I did like the idea of how that art can define an entire world, at least in the eyes of the artist. And it's kind of telling that his song 'Do You Love Me For Real' comes across initially as a love jam - and then you realize it could just as easily be applied to his car, which is at least interesting. What helps is that Big K.R.I.T. is more conscious of his environment and tends to write with a more honest worldview. 'Soul Food', for instance, bucks the typical hip-hop trend and laments how many people have traded for lust over love, and 'Pay Attention' is a song where he's in the strip club living it up only to see the girl who he wished he could have paid more attention to throughout the night. He tries to go for more spiritual material on 'Angels', but it honestly could have used a third verse to intensify the story and ground it a little more beyond a pretty basic metaphor that Steve Wariner did a lot better in 'Holes In the Floor Of Heaven'. The spiritual metaphors are done a fair bit better on 'Saturdays = Celebration', where Big K.R.I.T. tackles death and the battle for where one's soul might lie. And I'll be honest, I really liked 'Third Eye', where Big K.R.I.T. flirts with a girl more for personality and vibe rather than her ass, and it comes across as strikingly sincere. That said, I think he needed to put that song on to compensate for 'Mind Control', which operates as a hook-up song. Thankfully Big K.R.I.T's verse is the classiest, but still, if the premise of your song implies mind control to coerce women to get with you, that's really creepy!

But okay, putting aside all of that, the other big change on this record is Big K.R.I.T.'s choice to work with other producers and expand his style - and honestly, if we're looking for an area where this record has the most issues, it would be here, because the production can be a little hit and miss. Don't get me wrong, I like the spacier, futuristic synths Big K.R.I.T. tends to use on songs like 'Life' and the title track, and I'm a huge fan of his usage of horns like on the 'Standby' interlude, but his guitar textures can be a little spotty. I liked the downtempo strumming on 'Soul Food', but the quasi-80s funk vibe of 'Angels' and the distorted heaviness on 'Lost Generation' just felt a little overmixed and lacking a real driving melody, and that's not even touching on 'Mind Control' bass line, with the chiptune across the verse and guitar noodling across the chorus that came across completely flat. And yet probably the element that felt the most inconsistent was the percussion and beats, in that Big K.R.I.T. occasionally tried to bring in noisier, more distorted drums on songs like 'Life', and yet they really lacked a lot of punch. It's bizarre considering how thick and prominent the heavy beats on 'My Sub Part 3 (Big Bang)' were, a song that almost feels undermixed, relying only on bass, some stuttering hi-hats, and the sound of the outdoors - you'd think he'd be able to give the noisier drums more punch, and on 'Saturdays = Celebration', he actually managed to get it through working with Alex da Kid. And thus it's a little baffling when you get songs like 'Life' that could have used that punch. And there's other minor issues too - I didn't like the pitch shifting on 'Pay Attention', and I wasn't quite a fan of how thin they made Devin the Dude's voice sound on 'Mo Better Cool' - but really, those are minor quibbles.

At the end of the day, I liked Cadillactica - I'm not going to say I loved it or that it's anywhere close to the best hip-hop record of the year, in what has been a strikingly strong year, especially in the underground - but for southern hip-hop it has a lot of flavour and does maintain a strong balance between bangers and more conscious material, and all of it could land mainstream airplay, which gives this album a sense of populism I respect a lot. In other words, for me it's a solid 7/10, a good record and definitely worth your time if you're a Big K.R.I.T. fan or are looking for some smarter Southern hip-hop. In other words, Big K.R.I.T. is finding a way to make mainstream accessible music that is a little smarter, and that's a trend I definitely want to see continue.

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