The year’s first Champion Sound column picks up pretty much where it left off before Christmas, with Big K.R.I.T., whose ReturnOf4eva was my favorite rap release of 2011. K.R.I.T. was also featured in the first ever edition of this column last June, so it’s a pleasure to bring things full circle by catching up with the Mississippi rapper/producer about a busy year ahead. With the release of 4eva N A Day just weeks away, there’s another free project to look forward to very soon, followed by K.R.I.T.’s long-awaited major label debut on Def Jam this summer.
The January and February months are also a busy time for mixtapes, as huge volumes of releases were given away in the weeks following the festive period. As well as those featured here, we’ve seen more than worthy free projects from heavy hitters (Raekwon, T.I., Gucci Mane), up and comers (Mr Muthafuckin eXquire, Starlito, Jackie Chain) and returning Rhymesayers (I Self Devine, Brother Ali).
Mixtapes aside for a moment though, let’s talk Big K.R.I.T.
It’s a strange thing to go into an interview with somebody and be reasonably sure of what you’re going to get. That’s not a criticism of Big K.R.I.T. by any means; it’s just that he puts so much of his own personality into his records that this hardly feels like our first conversation. Like few others, K.R.I.T’s music relies on this character being genuine, so it’s a relief listening to him talk in his familiar southern drawl, sounding as humble and sincere as the voice you hear on record.
“If you’re lucky enough to have a voice, yeah you can rap about the parties and having fun, but it should also be a reflection of your actual life,” says K.R.I.T., whose music manages to strike this balance better than most. It’s easy to sound clumsy when dropping in socio-political comment in an album full of bona fide country rap bangers, but he manages to avoid this by staying clear of brash, sweeping statements, and sticking to telling stories based on his own experiences.
K.R.I.T has a much defined aesthetic, from his lyrics, right down to the way he twists classic soul samples around dusty drum loops. But while he may have his own ideals based on what hip hop means to him, he’s the last person you’d expect to find denouncing the work of others. He explains: “I really can’t knock another man for trying to make money, or feed their families and become financially free. I understand how poverty can push you into going into music that may not be 100% comfortable to you, but as far as I’m concerned, I really can only make music that reflects me. I don’t want to sacrifice my creative control.”
It’s an approach that has served him pretty well so far, having seen his stock grow exponentially in 2011. He said as much on ‘Dreamin’ from last year’s knockout mixtape Returnof4eva, but K.R.I.T. re-iterates that he feels “blessed” by his achievements to date. His progress is made all the more impressive when you consider that it’s all off the back of music released entirely for free, catching the attention of Def Jam who are set to release his major label debut Live From the Underground in the summer.
Not that the road to success has been without its struggles. Just two years ago, for example, he found himself getting booed in New York for performing ‘Country Shit’; a song that would later become his biggest hit to date, remixed with guest verses from Ludacris and Bun B:
“Oh yeah, for the most part I was very humbled, especially with being booed. It’s one of those things, it’s happened to a lot of people that I respect as artists, and I’m talking about OutKast and Lauryn Hill y’know? So it was a humbling experience, but now being able to walk out in Queens or Harlem or wherever is exciting. The last 12 months have been crazy!”
Wherever the job might take him, K.R.I.T.’s hometown of Mississippi remains central to his universe. He says with a sigh that he doesn’t get to spend as much time there as he would like, living in Atlanta for the ease of being able to jump in and out of the studio, and also missing the big family Christmas and Thanksgiving this year for work reasons. Even as I speak with him he’s supposed to be taking a couple of relaxing days off, but makes every effort to express how grateful he is for the opportunity to be interviewed.
K.R.I.T.’s family is a subject that comes up repeatedly in conversation, and he reasons that their continued excitement for his career in these rare days off is what gives him the energy to get back on the road. Their presence is there in his music too, occasionally literally, but also in the background informing his every move. He fondly remembers listening to his grandparents playing old Teddy Davis records, the likes of which he might go on to use as a sample, and then explains how his upbringing would have an effect on his music in other ways:
“Y’see, I was raised primarily by my grandmother who was born in 1923, so she had a different look at life and I try and carry that into my music. I would hate to rap in a certain way and not really live that lifestyle, and I see it as extremely important that people see me as the kind of person that you hear in my music.”
When prompted to talk about some of his own songs that he’s particularly proud of, it’s the ones that relate to this upbringing which first spring to mind. ‘Hometown Hero’ and ‘Country Shit’ are the first two he names, followed by ‘The Vent’, which is a touching tribute to the loss of a loved one:
“’The Vent’ is a good example [of a song I’m particularly proud of], because I made it during a time in my life when I was really trying to express how I felt about my grandmother’s passing away. It was one of those situations where I felt people really need to hear this, and hopefully relate to it, and I’m so happy that it turned out the way it did.”
With a new mixtape being readied for release next month, to be followed by an album release in the summer, 2012 looks set to be an even busier year for the Mississippi rapper. Speaking about the album, Live from the Underground, he teases, “I got one feature that ain't nobody gon' expect, so I’m excited for people to hear it.” He also confirms appearances from 2 Chainz and Big Sant, but other than that is keeping his cards held tightly to his chest. Rightfully so, too, after all you only get one shot at a major label rap career.
So, Is he nervous about finally releasing a record for retail?
“Well I’m my own worst critic,” he responds, considering the question. “My life is not that same as when I made K.R.I.T wuz Here, but y’know, as long as the people can still relate to it, I’m just excited to be able to put my life on wax.”
Featured Mixtape: Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death - Lord of the Fly
For this month’s featured mixtape (which is actually the first, since I just tacked it onto the column) we return to a rapper that was featured in Champion Sound #3, and continues to make an impression on new mixtape Lord of the Fly. Fans of his last project, For the Glory, will be returning to familiar territory here, as Nacho again hits upon a sweet spot in teaming up with production pair Blue Sky Black Death. This Seattle duo have been getting some deserved attention for a minute now, but in Nacho they’ve stumbled upon a voice that almost seems to complete them. Their eerie, otherworldly beats could stand up well enough on their own, but they make the perfect compliment for Nacho’s carefully written raps.
Perhaps what makes Nacho Picasso so magnetic is the total ease of his delivery, as he drops one-liner after effortless one-liner without ever dropping his cool. But while you’d think this approach could become monotonous, the sheer quality of the wordplay keeps things consistently interesting, if not laugh-out-loud funny. While he’s happy to twist his words inventively around familiar topics, his hyper-referential approach also finds him arriving in more unusual territory or at long-forgotten nuggets of popular culture. Just as on ‘Marvel’ from For the Glory had seen him rapping circles around his comic book collection, on ‘I’m a Greek God’ we find him ambling his way through his knowledge of Greek mythology, one pun at a time (“I’m high as mount Olympus, any goddess want the business? / Hera is my wifey, Aphrodite is my mistress.”)
Hip Hop’s mixtape culture is often viewed as an outlet for a work in progress, where rappers hone their craft before moving on to bigger and more polished things. Here though, Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death appear more or less the finished article, releasing their second near-flawless project in the space of just five months. Don’t sleep on these guys, they’re the real deal.
Rick Ross – Rich Forever
Regardless of your taste in hip hop (and this is undoubtedly a taste-less mixtape), some releases are just too big to ignore. With regards to Rick Ross’ Rich Forever, the word ‘big’ can be applied to just about its every aspect. Even by rap music’s standards Ross has always cut a caricatured figure of a star, but over the past few years he’s almost willed himself into a position where the lifestyle presented in his lyrics has become his reality. At this stage in his career you might expect his success and gross wealth to begin to detract from his craft, but with Ross it’s like the more successful he becomes the better he gets, and the better he gets the more successful he becomes. At this rate, there’ll soon be little left of the competition, as it gradually becomes engulfed in a swirling vortex of Rozay.
Rich Forever then, as well as racking up over a million downloads, is also very, very good. I mean, its very premise is entirely crass and offensive, but if you’re to imagine Rick Ross as ‘The Bawse’, a rotund cartoon capitalist with a penchant for rosé wine, then it all begins to take on a comic aspect. The whole thing just drips with expense, from the massive production job, to the features which include Diddy, Drake, Kelly Rowland, and Nas (Nas!) among others. If all that doesn’t sound quite extravagant enough for you though, don’t fret, because John Legend pops up in his finest dinner jacket to sing the title hook over and over again (“Yeah we gon’ be rich foreverrrrrrr, and everrrrrrrrr, and everrrrrrrrrrrr” [...you get the picture].) Admittedly this won’t be everyone and the ardent backpacker is unlikely to be converted, but Ross is here to stay and hip hop is all the more interesting for having him around.
Shady Blaze – The grind, hustle & talent
Just when I thought I was going to get through this column without mentioning a Green Ova release, Shady Blaze comes through with one of the collective’s best releases to date. The rapid fire rapper/producer has certainly shown flashes of brilliance before, but on The grind, hustle & talent his indisputable technical chops are matched by impressive composition to boot. Shady produces just two of the tracks here, but a list of producers including Signs, BK Beats and and N-Pire contribute superb backing for him to flex his vocal chords.
Blaze offers welcome respites from his double-time style too, noticeably on ’40 Bars’ which sees him lose his smokescreen and get real on the subject of his family. The beat from BK Beats is like nothing I’ve ever heard on a Green Ova project, made up of a sombre string section and simple, rolling drums. It sounds good here, and on the whole these are hi-fi productions with little trace of the ‘cloud rap’ styling associated with Main Attrakionz et al. Another string to the Green Ova bow, for sure, and their first real triumph of 2012.
Vince Staples – Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1
While the OFWGKTA flame has certainly dimmed somewhat after the muted critical response to Goblin, it seems like Tyler & co. are wisely taking a moment to regroup. But as Odd Future ready the release of their new group project OF Tape Vol. 2, a chance has fallen to extended family member Vince Staples to grab the spotlight. Released at the turn of 2012, I’d be lying if I said this has set the world alight, but if we’ve learnt anything from the whole Odd Future thing it’s that understated is underrated.
Shyne Coldchain Vol .1 is a tight and considered tape, consisting of 13 concise tracks that manage to impress without outstaying their welcome. Staples shows a steady hand throughout, happy to sit inside the pocket of the beats and get his rhymes off in his own time. He’s a decent storyteller too, best shown on closer and standout track ‘Taxi’, in which he writes a kind of violent love-letter to a former partner. Even when the subject matter gets heavy the beats themselves are nicely laidback, dominated by a perfectly dusty kick-snare and offset by dream-like strings and keys. Although Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1 is not the flashiest of mixtapes, its a modest success which hints at brighter things on the horizen for Staples.
Rich Kidz – Everybody Eat Bread
A sweet tooth is required to enjoy the latest from Rich Kidz, but if you like your rap music with a spoonful of sugar then this Atlanta duo are fast becoming essential listening. Indeed, you may well think you need to adjust your audio settings as you tune in to Everybody Eat Bread, as their maximalist sonic onslaught barely lets up for its duration. It’s not that this is a particularly abrasive tape, at least not in a traditional sense, but there’s a youthful energy to it which is so relentless that it’s probably best served in small doses. Basically, if your ears don’t react well to nasty synth sounds and a fair amount of auto-tune crooning, then maybe this isn’t for you.
Having said all that, Rich Kidz are definitely on to something here. Their ability to combine big pop hooks with hyperactive shout-rap is something few artists can do convincingly in the confines of a release, let alone in a single song. This is a technique Rich Kidz manage time after time, leading you down the path of a straight-up chart hit before turning it on its head by attacking a beat in the verses. They even enlist king of the shouters Waka Flaka Flame to add extra steel to standout track ‘My Life’, and Atlanta’s Trouble sounds as good as I’ve ever heard him on ‘We So Deep’. It’s Rich Kidz’s goofily named Young PU and Skateboard Skooly who stand out the most, though, and I’d be surprised if they don’t find some real crossover success with this.