Big K.R.I.T. is a mighty generous fellow. Last year, the Mississippi-based producer and emcee released K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, a free album that not only introduced K.R.I.T. to quite a few listeners with a fresh set of wide-eyed rhymes and chill southern beats, but resulted in a record contract with Def Jam. With major label backing, K.R.I.T. could have very well saved his best tracks for his first official album with the legendary hip-hop imprint, and nobody would have given it a second thought. Instead, however, while that release remains on the horizon, K.R.I.T. has delivered Return of 4eva, a 21-track mixtape of all new material (save for a remix of last year’s “Country Shit”), which not only surpasses his excellent debut, but actually sets the bar pretty high for whatever follows.
K.R.I.T., born Justin Scott, acts as both producer and rapper on Return of 4eva, and while his rhyming skills are solid, if not mind-blowing, his production ability is top notch. His sound draws heavily from the summer evening bass-and-soul thump of late ’90s giants like Outkast and UGK, and most of the tracks here have a warm, dreamy quality despite bumping so damn hard. He layers quick-paced beats beneath spacious, atmospheric synths and acoustic guitar on “Rise and Shine,” while layering distorted vocal samples and some chill, psychedelic guitar on “Dreamin’.” But K.R.I.T. isn’t averse to going harder when he needs to, as on the explosive, horn-sampling anthem “Sookie Now,” or the self-affirmed trunk-knocking rumble of “My Sub.” Most often, though, these songs stir up a kind of nostalgic, laid-back bliss, balancing smooth and heady soulscapes with just enough snap to rattle the windows at the right volume.
On production alone, most of the songs on Return of 4eva would still sound great paired with far lazier rapping. Yet Big K.R.I.T. seems to have sharpened his lyrical skills as well. He gets a little clunky rapping about strippers on “Highs & Lows” and “Shake It,” but the majority of the mixtape finds him in a much stronger position, whether gazing at the stars or speaking frankly about racism and poverty. He presents himself as hard-working everyman on “Rise and Shine” (“the latest I could be was on time“), offers touching reminiscences of rapping about cars and clothes to his dad on “Dreamin,'” and even makes something worthwhile about hip-hop navel-gazing on “American Rapstar” (“A&R once told me you could determine the worth of a song within 15 seconds of the playing/ with the complete and utter lack of the fact that it takes all three minutes and 40 seconds to comprehend what I’m saying“). Toward the end of the mixtape, he grows ever more serious, offering somber observations on race in “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism” (note the acronym), and allows himself five minutes to get a lot off his chest on “The Vent.”
Across Return to 4eva‘s 21 tracks, Big K.R.I.T. says a lot, and clearly has a lot to say. Sometimes it’s a sobering reminder of the progress that’s still yet to be made as far as class and race are concerned, and sometimes it’s just a call to let loose and party. But it’s almost always paired with a vibrant and lush backing, making even his most solemn verses sound truly mesmerizing. As one of today’s most creative young hip-hop artists, he could very well outdo this with his first offering on Def Jam, but as it stands, Return of 4eva is the first truly great hip-hop album of 2011.
Download: Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4eva
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.