Two roads diverge on the cover of Big K.R.I.T.’s latest mixtape. On the left, signs labeled “Regular,” “Follower,” “Ordinary” and “Pressure” point to a barren, tumbleweed-strewn wasteland; on the right, a single sign featuring the mixtape’s title, It’s Better This Way, tilts toward a bright, verdant valley. If the metaphor is a little unsubtle — what homages to that Robert Frost poem aren’t? — it’s at least an apt description of the stubbornly individualistic approach by which K.R.I.T. has defined his young career.
“It’s about finding myself as an artist and understanding that I took the road less traveled,” K.R.I.T. says of the mixtape, which was released in October. “It’s not going to be the easiest thing for me to put my music out, and as far as getting radio support, that might not happen right now. Things just might not unfold with respect to certain accolades and things of that nature.”
The 29-year-old rapper, who hails from Mississippi, first received attention in 2010 with his mixtape K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, which was followed the next year by Return of 4Eva, a critically acclaimed collection of tracks that found a place on the year-end best-of lists of many publications, including Rolling Stone and SPIN, and allowed K.R.I.T. to sign to hip-hop label Def Jam, which sports a roster that includes Kanye West, The Roots and Nas. But even with two subsequent studio albums, 2012‘s Live from the Underground and last year’s Cadillactica, K.R.I.T. has not yet managed to tap into the same mainstream success that many of his labelmates have found.
“Creatively, I think I ran into a brick wall of a mind state, where I felt like I wasn’t successful because I wasn’t on the radio,” K.R.I.T. says. “I really had to jolt myself out of that mentality because when it comes to my music, it’s so organic. It doesn’t really fit in the mold of everything. It’s not something you can just throw in a mix with a lot of other records. I just had to realize that I’m not necessarily chasing the radio.”
Instead, K.R.I.T.’s playing the long game. It’s right there in his stage name, an acronym for King Remembered In Time (his real name is Justin Scott). “If a song does take off, it’s a blessing, but for the most part, when I drop a project, people learn the music anyway,” K.R.I.T. says. “And when I go do shows, they’re right there with me singing the words… I have people that love my music and want to see me get to the next level. [So] I’m comfortable where I’m at, and I’m going to keep growing as a musician and an artist.”
K.R.I.T.’s approach to music might seem anachronistic in comparison to many of his hip-hop peers, with releases placing more importance on the album or mixtape as a whole rather than the individual songs. “That’s extremely important,” he says. “I want to take you on a journey with the music. It ain’t like I create 300 songs and then pick [the songs on the record] out of the 300. Normally, when I go to work on a project, every song has a place. It has to make sense, from the content to the hook to the sequencing, because it has to feel like a roller coaster ride — it’s all these different emotions that I want you to go through while listening to my music. For me, even down to the cover [of the album], it has to make sense. It has to feel a certain kind of way. That means me taking a page from a lot of the soul musicians that I listen to, a lot of the old-school rappers that I grew up listening to, who took so much pride in making everything about their project make sense.”
Those inspirations, which include Roy Ayers and Parliament Funkadelic, have informed much of K.R.I.T.’s sonic palette, particularly on studio albums for which sampling other artists is less of an option. That has meant collaborating with figures such as R&B singer Raphael Saadiq and storied L.A. producer Terrace Martin, with whom K.R.I.T. has worked “to figure out a way to create music that feels like a sample but isn’t.”
“The way I want to go with my next album is to really dive deep and see what I can come up with that people want to sample and start creating from that perspective,” he says. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, but I want to challenge myself as an artist and a musician.”
There’s also an element of science fiction that’s become a prominent part of K.R.I.T.’s music. In a 2013 interview with XXL, he described Cadillactica’s title as referencing a planet “where the soul and the funk comes from.” If that sounds a little like Stankonia, the funky utopia created by Atlanta rap duo OutKast, there might be a geographic connection to be found.
“Just being in the South — the South is almost like a whole other planet, anyway, especially if you’ve never been to Mississippi or never seen where I’m from. It’s this foreign place. For me, I wanted to make it [sound] as beautiful as I possibly could on the record, to take you to the South in a way you’ve never been before.”
In particular, K.R.I.T. says he hopes to be a part of Mississippi’s resurgence in the music scene, citing other prominent rappers from the state such as David Banner and Big Sean. “As long as we all continue to work together, and add on and do the best we can to add some kind of positivity and longevity to our careers, it’s going to build on what Mississippi has to offer when it comes to hip-hop and just music in general. We’ve already had legends that have paved the way, from B.B. King to David Ruffin. All we’ve got to do is just take note, stay on this road, and keep making quality music.”
Big K.R.I.T. comes to Iron City on Tuesday, Dec. 1. BJ the Chicago Kid will open. Tickets are $26. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.