“Now you’re going to have to go through hell
Worse than any nightmare that you ever dreamed
But in the end, I know you’ll be the one standing
You know what you’ve got to do. Do it… Do it!” — Duke, Rocky IV
Mississippi-bred rapper and producer Big K.R.I.T. found himself in a familiar place on a dark stage in Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on September 16th at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. He was alone.
Yes, he’s held his own side by side with some of the best lyricists in hip-hop. He was called out by arguably the best rapper in the world and met the challenge without blinking. He’s been cosigned by OGs. He’s graced magazine covers.
He’s been independent and he’s been on one of hip-hop’s most prestigious labels. He’s been considered next up and subsequently forgotten.
But on that Atlanta stage, knowing that hip-hop fans worldwide would soon look on wondering what the solemn rapper in the police uniform was about to do, he stood alone. Unleashing an acapella version of his searing verse from Kenneth Whalum’s somber “Might Not Be Okay,” Big K.R.I.T. reminded the hip-hop world why.
He stood alone not just because he performed without musical backing or hype men, but because only he could have pulled off this particular performance. Some artists have flash crafted by stylists, jewelers, and publicists that can create the right look and ensure that the right people see it. Others have natural charisma. They were stars before they ever even opened their mouths to rap. Some are even blessed with boundless energy, seemingly able to bend a crowd to their will with perpetual motion. Big K.R.I.T., on the other hand, has soul.
He bared his soul like an exposed nerve on that stage and and echoed the weary calls for compassion that have emanated from the black community since the first slave ship arrived on America’s shores. He represented the history, born and bred in Mississippi, of southern bluesmen who evoked feeling with their voices and told the truth with their words. He made it clear that there is no one like him in hip-hop today. The question remains, however, is there anyone who is buying what Big K.R.I.T. is selling?
On his 2010 track “Now or Neva,” released shortly after announcing that he would be signing to Def Jam, he begins the song with a clip from Rocky IV. In this sequel, the scrappy fighter from Philadelphia was facing an opponent with a seemingly endless supply of resources. An opponent so big and so strong that Rocky felt more like he was fighting a machine than a fellow boxer.
The track’s tone is not triumphant like one might expect from a young artist who just realized his greatest dream, but cautiously optimistic. Maybe K.R.I.T. foresaw that throughout his Def Jam tenure he too would be fighting against a powerful machine with endless resources. His independent releases generated a huge buzz and a loyal, growing, fan base large enough to make the major labels seek him out. But once he arrived, he found himself victim to familiar music industry politics that has claimed dozens of careers before his, and will bury many more.
In a brand new track released Thursday called “Free Agent,” K.R.I.T. gets more specific about his frustrating stint at the the house that Russell and Rick built, the one he announced his departure from back in July. The new track begins with a clip as well, this time from an interview with the syndicated morning show The Breakfast Club. As the quartet of DJ Envy, Angela Yee, noted sh*t-starter Charlamagne The God, and K.R.I.T. discussed the rapper and producer’s career, fellow southerner Charlamagne shared the news with an only half-surprised K.R.I.T. that a Def Jam staffer vowed that K.R.I.T.’s debut album would never come out because “he ain’t never gonna sell no records.”
K.R.I.T. attacks the energetic production (and his former label) like a man who emerged from a long fight still on his feet (“Oh Lord, Lord, Lord there they go / Trying to f*ck me out another budget I ain’t a hoe”.) Sure, there is anger there, but there’s also the confidence that comes from being emotionally battered and bruised, and still surviving. K.R.I.T. exudes that confidence throughout the new track, and in more recent interviews with The Breakfast Club and Sway in the Morning where he talks about the clarity he gained from his disappointing six-year run at Def Jam.
Whether it was realistic that Def Jam would throw their full weight behind a rapper from Meridian best known for thoughtful lyrics and callbacks to Southern hip-hop OGs than catchy hits, K.R.I.T. is makes it clear that there is no love lost between him and his former label. He tears into Def Jam for their shaky corporate structure and lack of support, which he claims had him working as hard as an independent artist even though was was supposed to have the machine behind him.
His next move is an important one, because he is once again independent. If he doesn’t succeed, it won’t be because of clueless executives. But with the success of Kendrick Lamar and the entire TDE crew, which could be a potential landing spot, J. Cole and Bas, Anderson .Paak, and even Mac Miller, it seems like there is a place for soul in hip-hop music. The question is, can Big K.R.I.T. sell soul, without losing his?