A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train” is probably the year’s most self-consciously cool rap song — seven boldfaced blog-rap names, painstakingly assembled and sequenced, all attempting to outdo each other with their oblique references and studiously casual cadences. But as the song ends, things change. We hear a voice, one that sounds Southern to the point of foreignness even after the Yelawolf verse, twanging with hard and unashamed passion, rapping longer than everyone else, chest-beating and tooth-gnashing, proudly and defiantly uncool. On that verse, probably the song’s best, K.R.I.T. mutters about not being able to pronounce the names of expensive drinks, namechecks B.B. King and Muddy Waters with a Rolling Stone writer’s reverence, and ends things by claiming to be “a true artist” like Ma Bailey — an unfamiliar name who, upon Googling, turns out to be K.R.I.T.’s tattoo artist. On a song with some of the world’s most fashionable rappers, then, K.R.I.T. is getting remarkably goofy. And then there’s the great seesawing blackout delivery that he falls into sometimes: “Been a killer, eighty-sixer, nigga, that’s my born year” — pure ingrained technique. That’s K.R.I.T. for you. A posse full of stylists, and he drawls his way past everyone with deceptive ease, flexing the sweaty grade-grubbing intensity of a born honor student and still winning anyway. K.R.I.T. is the type of rapper who can insist that him name is a clumsy-ass acronym for “King Remembered In Time,” then use that ungainly phrase as the title of his mixtape, then give that mixtape some deeply ugly velvet-painting fantasy-novel cover art. And even though he can’t get out of his own way at any step of the way, the tape turns out great.
K.R.I.T. has been cranking out deeply satisfying country-rap tapes with frightening regularity for a few years now, producing all his own orchestral slow-strut beats and drifting slowly toward lyrical incense-and-sandals territory. And maybe that prolific consistency is why King Remembered In Time has been greeted with a resounding critical shrug in my corner of the internet. I’ve read a couple of reviews that talk about how K.R.I.T. is slowly stagnating, how his ’90s Southern-rap revivalism has stubbornly refused to develop. But I’m not sure those critics are hearing the same tape I’m hearing. Because from where I’m sitting, King Remembered In Time has thicker and deeper production than anything K.R.I.T.’s done yet. It’s all firmly within the Pimp C/Organized Noize format that K.R.I.T.’s always used, but it gets busy and psychedelic within its chosen subgenre-boundaries, pushing things outward from within. The James Blake and M83 samples will probably get more attention than the rest of the tape’s production tricks, but they’re really only the beginning of the story.
The real exciting parts of King Remembered In Time are the parts you might not notice right away. They’re in the layers. On a song like “Shine On,” we get choral sighs, rushing ripples of funk guitar, a restless drum-track, gospel moans buried in the mix, and a handful of musical themes, all dropping out and reappearing, arranged with a master’s ear. On “King Without A Crown,” drums rush in every different direction — woodblocks, handclaps, 808 thunks, snare baps, all pushing each other in different directions like a roiling mob. “Banana Clip Theory” rests on a crisp and rattling breakbeat, like a late-’80s Soul II Soul single, while mournful saxophone loops and sleepy jazz electric-piano flourishes blanket everything in pathos. Elsewhere, we get crying babies, screaming triumphant proto-metal guitar solos, twinkling keyboards, Isaac Hayes guitar-squelches, synthetic sub-bass sandworms, and a million other things. That lush business stands in stark contrast to the minimal street-rap sounds currently in vogue — ratchet-music pings, trap bass-honks, empty space everywhere. But whenever one of the avatars of rap’s current moment shows up, he instantly seems to belong completely — Future’s astral Auto-Tune croaks swooping in from the night sky on “Just Last Week,” Trinidad James barking angrily through “My Trunk” like a lost Dungeon Family B-teamer. It’s a testament to the fullness of K.R.I.T.’s self-created sonic universe: It’s big enough to engulf any rapper who might stop by.
As a rapper, K.R.I.T.’s indifferent critics are basically right that he’s still strutting the same path that others blazed long ago. His delivery remains forever halfway between T.I. and Pimp C. His tendency to come across like a pleasant and normal and approachable guy is a bit troubling; ask Rhymefest whether anyone wants to hear an average blue-collar dude’s rap album. When things take the inevitable late-album turn toward sincerity, it’s the luminous music that keeps things afloat, not the rapping. When “WTF” opens with K.R.I.T. saying, “I wrote a poem the other day,” my insides cringe, even though the song turns out fine, and even though he never quite resorts to slam poetry. But the grit and determination in K.R.I.T.’s voice, and the rhythmic sophistication at work in his ever-changing cadences, deserve credit. On a song like “Talkin Bout Nothing,” K.R.I.T. is mostly just sneering better-than-you shit, and it sounds amazing; he’s at his best when he’s heated. if it helps, though, imagine K.R.I.T. as a friendly tour guide, leading you by hand through the intricately constructed caverns of funk that he’s built. K.R.I.T. might always be a producer first and a rapper second, but if his production remains as breathlessly huge as what we hear here, that won’t be a problem.
Download King Remembered In Time here.