Rapper Big K.R.I.T. serves rhymes caught in a time-honored tension

Boston Globe, April 29, 2012

There’s a juxtaposition you sometimes hear in hip-hop, a mood swing that throws the listener from heights of hedonistic excess to the depths of an artist’s soul-searching on life, loss, and the meaning of it all. Strip-club anthems might give way to raw expressions of despair, even laced with evocations of suicide.

No region owns a monopoly on these themes, but the pairing seems most effective when it comes from the South. Classic work by groups such as OutKast, from Atlanta, or Geto Boys, from Houston, shows an emotional range that elsewhere might be viewed as overly candid or unedited, commercially imprudent or politically incorrect.

Big K.R.I.T., born Justin Scott, of Meridian, Miss., is the newest Southern MC to hit the big time behind this mixture of manic and depressive, sacred and profane. At 25, K.R.I.T. (the name stands for “King Remembered in Time”) has honed his voice through the now-standard method of releasing free-download mixtapes and in a flurry of side projects and collaborations.

In the process, he’s earned plaudits as much for songs such as “The Vent,” in which he reflects on death and depression, imagining asking Kurt Cobain what drove him to take his own life; and for “Money on the Floor,” in which dollars are spent, bottles pop and rear ends shake with abandon.

Along the way, he has collaborated with luminaries of rap from below the Mason-Dixon line, including T.I., Chamillionaire, David Banner, Devin the Dude, Ludacris and Bun B — the latter two on an enthusiastic (but profanely titled) song celebrating the pleasures of rural life.

Now K.R.I.T., who headlines the Middle East Downstairs on Tuesday, is touring behind his latest mixtape, “4Eva N a Day” and in advance of a long-delayed major label debut, “Live From the Underground,” now due out with Island Def Jam in June.

“It’s been a long time coming,” K.R.I.T. says by phone from a tour stop in Nashville. “I dropped ‘4Eva N a Day’ just to remind people that I can still put together a crazy project, and to give everybody a full body of music.”

The mixtape is a concept project, following K.R.I.T. from the morning alarm clock to the end of a long night, featuring incidents and impressions from the daily grind, family matters, good times, and relationship drama and reconciliation.

He hopes people will listen straight through, rather than hop between songs. “It’s a day in the life, featuring people in my life,” he says. “There’s an actual recording of my father on the record, and a sound bite of my grandmother talking before ‘Yesterday.’ ”

K.R.I.T. produces most of his own material, and his sound mines what can now be called vintage Southern hip-hop values, with plenty of live instrumentation, R&B samples and a sticky soul feel.

There’s a jazz saxophone on “Boobie Miles,” a song titled for a football running back in the book and film “Friday Night Lights,” and which features a sleek sports-themed video that reinforces an earnest motivational message: to persevere and keep competing even when you are injured or lose a game.

K.R.I.T. attributes his unvarnished old-school values to the texture of his upbringing in a small Southern town. “Everybody knew everybody,” he says of Meridian. “I had a lot of elders around who put me on a lot of game and gave me a lot of morals early in life.”

At the same time, he’s not too shy to veer into the raw and raunchy. “I’m still young,” he says. “I have my vices, and that’s in my music too. I deal with the good and the bad, trying to find a balance and do right.”

These dichotomies are staples of Southern music tracing back, of course, to soul and especially the blues, where drunken benders and bar fights resolve into mornings of worship or lamentation.

In that context, it makes sense that, for a guest spot on his upcoming record, K.R.I.T. reached out to an illustrious fellow Mississippian, bluesman B.B. King. The more surprising part is that King, who is 86, accepted the invitation. The two worked together in the studio, King even playing Lucille, his famous guitar.

“It was mad cool,” K.R.I.T. says. “Actually it was mind-blowing, because my grandmother was a big B.B. King fan; she put me onto his music. To work with a legend on my first album just based on the mixtapes that I dropped — sky’s the limit, man.”

King offered professional advice too, K.R.I.T. says. “Whenever he spoke, you listened. And it was just mad relaxed. It was so easy to work with him.”

Other announced features on the new disc include Memphis hip-hop duo 8Ball and MJG, and North Carolina soul singer Anthony Hamilton. “These are people that I really enjoy their music, for one,” K.R.I.T. says, “and they really fit with where I’m trying to go with my sound.”

Since 2006 K.R.I.T. has been based in Atlanta, where he moved to be in a hub of the music industry. But he returns to Meridian to visit family and get away from the grind, and he fiercely defends his home state from the stereotypes it attracts.

“It’s a positive place, people are appreciative for what they have,” he says. “There’s a lot of intelligent people. At the end of the day racism is everywhere, it’s not just in Mississippi.”

But like other Southern rappers, K.R.I.T. mixes regional pride and party tunes with license to take on any political topic. “Racism isn’t over,” he says. “We do social commentary in our music. We’re not afraid to talk about certain topics, and test the boundaries. The thing about Southern hip-hop is, it has always been outspoken.”