Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Big K.R.I.T.: Return of 4Eva (2011)

(s/r) [download it here]

The free hip hop mixtape is sort of our modern equivalent to the 45 in the '60s -- amidst the illusion of disposability comes freedom. But the comparison is far off in terms of volume; you could spend every day listening to the latest offerings across the net and have little time for much else, and that's if you limit it to relatively high-profile performers. In the '60s, you got the A-side which was often freewheeling and imaginative and pop crass or pop class, and the b-side which was frequently a baffling nonentity or just a visibly subpar work that had to be buried someplace. Make that nearly always, unless you were dealing with some sort of great artist with a breadth of excellent material to provide.

Rappers like Big K.R.I.T. are going to save the best stuff for their studio albums, those things you're supposed to pay for, so even the most gifted artists aren't going to rise to the level of an actual LP on their mixtapes. Take a look at Das Racist's Sit Down, Man and while it is awash in brilliance, its lack of focus is marked. Forget it. You might get some snazzy experimentation, or you might get noodling, usually a lot of it -- these things often cover nearly the full runtime of a CD, sometimes more. And if one, for whatever reason, takes off, it usually garners a tidal wave of hype, seeing as it's free and all. Which is the whole point, from the record company's perspective.

While I see the virtues of the mixtape format, I personally hope it doesn't last forever. I'm much more intrigued by Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music model, which last year offered work-in-progress songs and other goodies as a series of virtual singles, setting up his album as the healthily built-up climax of a music-filled year. The idea of the mixtape is to plunder, to find the gems amongst the fuckaround. Return of 4Eva is getting ectastic praise, especially in hip hop-exclusive circles, but let's get serious. Big K.R.I.T. is a smart and talented guy and he's only playing to his strengths about half the time here.

Don't get me wrong -- you can totally see why it's making an impact. For one thing, it goes down easy as fuck. K.R.I.T. is a remarkably affable performer, but he also stumbles a lot, his chick-fixated everyman persona sounding like the eyeroll falsehood rappers shouldn't have to worry themselves over in fucking 2011, particularly a man who seems as tuned in and politically conscious as K.R.I.T.; even when he scores on the party music front, it still seems like kind of a put-on -- a bit like Lupe Fiasco's bewildering stab at the same on this year's Lasers, only more down-to-earth. And as much as he keeps up the pace up with steady, occasionally superb production, Big K.R.I.T. can't escape a certain level of sameness and boredom as these 77 minutes wear on. His motifs are fun backing vocals, which feel best on the earlier tracks before the novelty stops sticking, and a play at the fake-ominous backing tracks of early '90s West Coast rap, best exemplified (and most infectious) on "My Sub."

Of course there are a few gems that make the price of this record more than right: "Dreamin'" and "Rotatin'" are both glorious summer hip hop made for beach drives and street cruises that feel smooth as silk and drift along thrillingly without ever pulling into overdrive, one welcome virtue of a lot of mixtapes. "Highs & Lows" is an exquisite slowjam that doesn't feel as overwrought and familiar as most, despite mediocre lyrics (K.R.I.T. isn't the finest wordsmith yet, though as mentioned, his consciousness lyrics seem more felt), and "King's Blues" is one of the best rap cuts I've heard this year -- reaching strongly back to pre-1986 old school but with fuller production, it has a complete enough feeling that it could be a fully-realized classic single. It definitely leaves a hint of great optimism; it alone would make the mix worth downloading.

Much of the rest, while pleasing enough, is far less than what I think Big K.R.I.T. is ultimately capable of. It's none of my business but much like T.I., who he periodically resembles vocally, he could stand to drop the machismo and cop to the busy pop that seems his forte. But I wouldn't be surprised if he took some other left turn. I would be surprised if the first great record he did was one we weren't expected to pay for. And not pleasantly, because as much as I love free music (legal and otherwise), devaluing great rap is not something I'd advocate.

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