Status Ain't Hood

Big K.R.I.T., Rapsody, Yelawolf, And The Changing Nature Of Southern Rap

Big K.R.I.T. has always sounded like a throwback, but when we first met him, you could sound like a throwback and also sound like the future. Seven years ago, I interviewed an ascendent K.R.I.T., just after he released his breakout K.R.I.T. Wuz Here mixtape and just before he announced that he’d signed with Def Jam. Back then, old-school Southern rappers were still dominant. T.I. and Rick Ross and a still-Young Jeezy were huge stars, and future stars like Drake and J. Cole were still figuring out their styles. The 2010 debut that turned out to be the most aesthetically important was Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli, the album that turned synthy and cheap fight-music into something operatic and overcharged, helping to transform the trap music that T.I. and Jeezy had pioneered into the whole new thing it’s become today. But we didn’t know that then. K.R.I.T. was proudly old-school. He somehow managed to sound exactly like T.I. during all the moments when he didn’t sound exactly like Pimp C. As a producer, he leaned toward woozy, organic, sample-heavy funk, and he promised “1k cash & a pan of Shipe’s famous brownies” to anyone who could name all the samples on K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. That feels like a million years ago.

Today, the Southern rap continuum is broken. The internet rendered regional sounds all but obsolete. The Atlanta trap sound has transformed into the dominant sound of rap music and maybe also of pop music. The biggest Southern rap star right now is arguably Lil Uzi Vert, who is actually from Philadelphia. (You could also make a case that it’s Post Malone, who is actually from Syracuse.) The muffled, degraded chaos of South Florida SoundCloud-rap is on the rise, but it’s as much a continuation of Atlanta trap as a repudiation; it just takes those sounds and makes them cheaper and nastier. And when you hear a Southern rap record that’s not built from the synths and hi-hats of Atlanta trap, it sounds practically sounds alien. And now that K.R.I.T. has finished his halfway-successful stint at Def Jam, something alien is what he wants to give us.

When K.R.I.T.’s massive new double album 4Eva Is A Mighty Long Time opens with layered synths and ghostly gospel samples and soulful orchestral blats and thunderous low-end and emotive slam-poet delivery and face-slap snares, the effect is a bit like going to see a movie in 35mm cinemascope after you’ve gotten used to watching stuff on your iPad. It’s so grand and rich and huge that it almost seems like it shouldn’t exist. It feels somehow wrong. It’s a bracing feeling, and it lasts for the first few tracks of the album, from the vibraphone rolls of “Confetti” through the rushing strings and erratic hi-hats of “Big Bank” and the colossal blats of “Subenstein (My Sub IV).” (K.R.I.T. is so old-school that he uses the word “sub” to talk about car speakers rather than sneak Twitter dissing.)

But the feeling doesn’t last. 4Eva Is A Mighty Long Time is a mighty long album, and it loses its way when K.R.I.T. gets too introspective or too obvious. The Southern-rap nostalgia gets a little too thick sometimes, as when K.R.I.T. brings in the veteran Murder Inc. singer Lloyd to sensitively croon the hook from Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” A well-edited single-disc version of 4Eva Is A Mighty Long Time would be one of the year’s best rap albums. But even the version we got feels like a small miracle. And there’s still room for it. K.R.I.T. is an independent artist now, and he’s competing with the major-label stars, the people who are constantly in the featured-artist carousel. 4Eva Is A Mighty Long Time debuted at #7, one spot lower than Yo Gotti’s I Still Am and well north of Ty Dolla $ign’s Beach House 3. He’s not going to be the future, but he’s not going to have any trouble sticking around, either.

He’s got company. Last month, North Carolina’s Rapsody released Laila’s Wisdom, her second album. It’s a relatively high-profile album, packed with big-name guests like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak and released on the Roc Nation imprint. But it still feels like a glorious anomaly, a product of an introspective and backpack-friendly strain of Southern rap that doesn’t have to fall under J. Cole’s umbrella. 9th Wonder, once a member of the groundbreaking North Carolina group Little Brother, handled the majority of the production, and the music has a warmth and an intensity that feels rare. It’s not as woozily orchestrated as what K.R.I.T. is doing, but it still makes for a gorgeous anachronism. Both Rapsody and K.R.I.T. go out of their way to pay homage to Southern-rap forebears like Goodie Mob. (Rapsody samples “Cell Therapy,” while K.R.I.T. gets a mighty Cee-Lo guest verse. Nobody should be hitting up Cee-Lo for guest verses anymore, given that he basically admitted to sexual assault on Twitter, but I get what K.R.I.T. was trying to do.)

The music on Laila’s Wisdom puts all the focus on Rapsody, a voice that feels strong and vital. Rapsody is tough and introspective in equal measure, and while she trumpets conscious-rap virtues, she always comes across as an actual person rather than an idea. She’s a storyteller, too, and she ends the album with “Jesus Coming,” an honestly devastating imagined account of a mother watching her daughter die in crossfire. And she delights in the workaday details of everyday life, in the way people flirt and argue and talk shit even as they stress about money. Rapsody’s not a star right now, and the rap climate isn’t exactly hospitable to her becoming one anytime soon. But she’s carving out a space for herself. She and K.R.I.T. seem like a good match for one another; I’d like to hear them make music together someday.

Another peer for K.R.I.T. should be Yelawolf, the tatted-up white rapper who emerged from Alabama around the same time that K.R.I.T. came out of Mississippi. Yelawolf had already had a tumultuous journey through the music industry when he released his 2010 mixtape Trunk Muzik, but when I heard that thing, you couldn’t tell me that he wasn’t going to be a world-conquering star. That’s not what happened. Yelawolf went on to have an even more tumultuous few years. He signed with Eminem’s Shady Records, a bad fit for an artist who already sounded a bit too much like Eminem for comfort, in 2011. He released a collaborative EP with a not-galactically-famous-yet Ed Sheeran in 2012. And he just never seemed to put it all together. That brings us to Trial By Fire, the frankly disastrous album that Yelawolf released on the same day that K.R.I.T. gave us 4Eva Is A Mighty Long Time. This is Yelawolf’s attempt to forge a whole new lane for himself, a country-rap experiment that’s almost dumbfoundingly unlistenable.

It’s not like you can’t make something great by combining country and rap music; Bubba Sparxxx made a unheralded classic out of those same ingredients with 2003’s Deliverance. But in Yelawolf’s hands, that combination basically means the Sons Of Anarchy soundtrack, except with a fake Eminem yammer-rapping over it. When Yelawolf attempts to mythologize a country-shitkicker lifestyle, it just comes out ludicrous: “Bullet shells in my yard, loaded gun on the shelf / run the roads like a wolf through the whole Bible Belt / Rattlesnake skin boots, toes up on the chopper / 50 Harleys behind me, they all ready to slaughter.” National disgrace Kid Rock shows up, doing something that’s closer to rapping than he’s done in recent years but talking about “Engine Engine Number Nine, on the Mason-Dixon Line.” Once upon a time, Yelawolf and K.R.I.T. both had standout verses on A$AP Rocky’s 2013 all-rising-stars posse cut “1 Train,” a weird song to revisit four years later. Today, the highlight of a Yelawolf album is a guest hook from Wynnona Judd. So maybe Big K.R.I.T. didn’t turn out to be a transformative star. Maybe the prevailing trends of rap in general and Southern rap in particular moved in other directions. But K.R.I.T. didn’t turn out like Yelawolf, either. He’s got that going for him.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Dabrye – “The Appetite” (Feat. Roc Marciano, Quelle Chris, & Danny Brown)
Look, I’m a simple man. You give me three of the world’s best rappers ripping an ominous video-game beat to pieces, and I’m happy.

2. Statik Selektah – “Put Jewels On It” (Feat. Run The Jewels)
A working theory: The Run The Jewels/DJ Shadow collab “Nobody Speak” shows up in every third movie trailer nowadays because, as glorious as those world-crumbling El-P skronk-rap beats can be, it’s a lot of fun to hear those two guys rap over something a little more buoyant. And on this song, Statik Selektah’s throwback spy-movie boom-bap does the trick nicely. Killer Mike really goes in here.

3. Lil Uzi Vert – “The Way Life Goes (Remix)” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
Apparently, all it took for me to get behind Uzi’s smarmily emo pop-rap was one pretty good Nicki verse. This either makes me basic, or it makes me old. Maybe both! Either way, those little Nicki ad-libs at the end just kill me.

4. Westside Gunn – “Down State” (Feat. Styles P & Benny)
Styles P promising “a Nexus invasion of ya home” on a track with Westside Gunn and Benny proves that he really gets this whole Griselda aesthetic. They should just bring him into the group on a part-time elder-statesman basis, like David West off the bench.

5. Xavier Wulf & Bones – “CrashLanding”
Xavier Wulf is 25 years old. Bones is 23. It feels ridiculous to describe them as pioneers of the SoundCloud-rap subgenre, and yet that’s exactly what they are. They sound great together.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO