As illustrated on the album’s cover, Live From The Underground’s title track concludes with a short skit in which Big K.R.I.T. crashes his Cadillac in a strange land called A&Rville, part of a realm known as the Mainstream. Mercifully, that narrative doesn’t carry through the whole album. The skit is just a brief formality, a way for the formerly independent Mississippi rapper to voice his ambivalence about being on a major label without dwelling on it too much in song. It does raise an obvious question, though: If K.R.I.T. is so concerned about being a fish out of water, why did he sign to Def Jam in the first place? After all, as his own producer, he was better positioned than most mixtape rappers to continue making music on his own terms.
Since K.R.I.T. also self-produced Live From The Underground, his commercial debut doesn’t drift too far from the luminous, Outkast-indebted funk of the three exceptional mixtapes that preceded it, though it is considerably rowdier than this March’s inventively mellow 4Eva NaDay. With its rapid beat and brusque “Fuck them haters, fuck these hos” chorus, lead single “I Got This” feels like the thick-drawled rapper’s attempt to give the mainstream what he thinks it wants, while the banging “Yeah Dats Me” may be the first K.R.I.T. track meant for strip clubs. Neither song embarrasses itself, per se—their beats are propulsive and their hooks stick—but K.R.I.T.’s everyman charisma gets lost in the bluster. It’s odd hearing a rapper with so much personality sound so purposefully generic.
K.R.I.T. saves the introspection for the album’s second half, where he puts his Def Jam budget to good use with features from Anthony Hamilton and Melanie Fiona, who turn in respectively poignant and sweet performances on “Porchlight” and “If I Fall.” B.B. King sings the hook on “Praying Man,” a trophy collaboration tailor-made for K.R.I.T., who’s always had the soul of an old bluesman. But like his mixtapes, Underground is most moving when K.R.I.T. works without guests. A heartfelt appreciation of his hands-on father and the sage advice he passed down, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” is the album’s emotional apex, the kind of earnest reminiscence that carried K.R.I.T.’s mixtapes, but that mostly takes a backseat on this competent, if rarely distinguished, major-label debut.