Will Hagle’s only goal in life is to be intentionally walked in a Major League baseball game.
“Who is this?” I asked.
It was a question that you had to speak aloud back then, before the answer could be revealed by tapping an app. Usually you directed the inquiry at a friend with a similar taste and knowledge of music. Almost always those three words were accompanied by feelings of doubt and uncertainty as much as excitement and interest. If you were lucky, and also prone to developing emotional relationships with albums or artists, the answer could change your life. If you were unlucky, it could cause you embarrassment for not already knowing.
“Just some rapper you’ll never hear about,” my friend responded.
Unlucky. The hierarchy of musical knowledge in the car — his car, nonetheless — had been established. My friend glanced towards the passenger’s seat, looking like Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid. Well, if you must pry…
I must, I must.
“Big K.R.I.T.,” he relented.
I don’t remember what year it was, but it was long before that name was a blog headline. What I know for sure is that my life wasn’t changed by the answer, at least recognizably. I didn’t seek out K.R.I.T.’s music or become a fan after exiting the car that day. His name and sound compelled me to ask about it, but my brain stored the memory a place that remained untapped for the immediate future. Like the song you Shazamed but never revisited.
I downloaded K.R.I.T. Wuz Here years later, when websites started telling me I should. I was an accomplice in the unchecked crime of musical hype. K.R.I.T., at the height of his buzz, was the victim. At least it landed him a Def Jam deal. And at least my friend’s snobbish response proved wrong; K.R.I.T. was a rapper I was suddenly hearing a lot about.
Now, about five years removed from K.R.I.T. blowing up, the momentum that carried him through “Country Shit,” Live From The Underground and the XXL Freshman list seems to have stalled. Seems to have is the most crucial component of that sentence, because it’s public attention that’s slowed rather than talent or output. In fact, K.R.I.T’s probably actually improved.
It’s Better This Way, K.R.I.T.’s latest project, is as good or better than anything he’s ever released. For some reason, for the first time since that car ride and the K.R.I.T. Wuz Here hype, I’ve been listening. Yet the lack of buzz surrounding this tape — as well as the several that have preceded it — is disheartening. It shows how the music media is driven by the same things as the financial markets: corporate money, baseless speculation, and unpredictable consumer behavior. If K.R.I.T.’s career could be called a business, it’s been steadily putting out new quality products since it launched. Two studio albums and many mixtapes. His proverbial stock ticker, however, is trending downward. The past few years have been more or less like the years between the car ride and the radio play. He still feels like just some rapper you’ll never hear about.
For a short period of time in the early 2010s, like a hot tip on Mad Money, Krit was being built up as some sort of regional successor in the South. Pimp C had died. Outkast had split. B.o.B. was on the radio, but “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes” were poor substitutions for the type of trunk-rattling hip-hop that people craved. K.R.I.T. was the perfect alternative. He had the soul of UGK, a drawl like Big Boi, and the rectitude to avoid studio sessions with Bruno Mars or Haley Williams.
He still has all of those things on It’s Better This Way, even if they’re not being discussed as attractive artistic qualities. The album’s title, which also provides its thematic structure, suggests that such outside affirmation isn’t the most important thing for K.R.I.T.’s career or wellbeing anymore. The lyrics follow, and “King Pt. 4” is the mission statement. K.R.I.T. compares himself to LeBron not just to claim that he’s the greatest, but to vent frustration about how not everyone agrees.
Like LeBron, K.R.I.T. does everything. Most of the production on It’s Better This Way is handled by the rapper himself. “Keep It Boomin” is a song title, but also a good description of his beat-making approach. He should work with Warren G and Young Dolph more often.
As always, K.R.I.T.’s beats bang but also allow room for introspective lyricism to thrive. He admits to crying upon seeing his brother’s kids, wondering why he can’t live a similarly fulfilling life. He daydreams about going to Africa and figuring it all out on a song with the same title as a Tom Cruise movie. He calls one track “Party Tonight,” but fills the verses with tales of racial violence. There’s a subtle greatness to the way K.R.I.T. puts together words like that over beats so smooth. There’s ingeniousness to the way he makes a free DatPiff project “narrated by” DJ Drama flow together like a cohesive piece. I suppose it’s the same thing he’s been doing throughout all the years I’ve mostly not listened to him, and I’m beginning to understand the reasons people defend their favorite underrated rappers in internet comment sections.
K.R.I.T. will have no problem sustaining support from his sturdy core fan base, but a significant portion of the rest of the world has ignored him. What’s concerning is that this seems to be a result of the hype cycle running its course rather than K.R.I.T.’s talent running out. It’s not necessarily financially prudent to sound like K.R.I.T. anymore. The sound of the South has shifted again, and so have fans’ musical attention spans. K.R.I.T. might not be worth Shazam money, but he should at least be getting Soundhound praise (4.5 rating in the Apple and Android stores for doing the same thing). By now, most people know who K.R.I.T. is. What matters is whether they’re still paying attention.