When reigning rap juggernaut Kendrick Lamar threw the gauntlet down for his generation of hip-hop artists on his “Control” verse, perhaps the least-known of the dozen rappers he calls out by name was the Meridian, Miss.-based MC Big K.R.I.T.
The critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, née Justin Scott — who performs at The Orange Peel Wednesday, Dec. 9 — has been grinding since 2005. He’s frequently championed by genre insiders for his formidable flow, compelling lyrics, old-school production chops and album-oriented approach (even on mixtapes) in the age of the single. But he hasn’t had his own blockbuster hit or even a guest verse on a pop-friendly production to broaden his profile.
Part of that might stem from K.R.I.T’s unapologetically Southern sound, recalling the late 1990s and early 2000s heyday of Outkast and Scarface. Or his non-mainstream subject matter, which often touches on matters of family, faith and his rural upbringing at the expense of more radio-friendly topics (although he’s got more than few banging odes to fast cars and loose women).
Regardless of why, though, it simply doesn’t bother him much.
“I just always want to be part of the leaders, the people back in the day who I listened to,” he says. “People like Outkast, Tupac, Biggie, Curtis Mayfield, Willie Hutch, Bobby Womack — people who made albums. It didn’t matter whether it had a hit [single on it] or not, the albums were so solid. [You could tell] so much time went into the title, the album cover, the delivery, the songwriting, the breakdowns — everything made so much sense. I never wanted to run away from that.”
The references to Mayfield, the ’70s-era soul great, is telling. K.R.I.T’s sound both expounds upon Outkast’s mix of funky beats and spacey production while delving even further afield than that experimental duo, featuring singers like Raphael Saadiq and the late B.B. King on his 2011 debut Live from the Underground. It’s clear he’s making music directly in the lineage of classic soul and R&B.
But for all of the obvious sonic reverence and Southern hip-hop lineage, Big K.R.I.T. is first and foremost one ferocious rapper. His “Control” response song, “Mt. Olympus,” off of last year’s concept album Cadillactica, abundantly proved that point. Not only does the track showcase maniacal twang and razor-sharp technical skills, it also fires a broadside in the name of all Southern hip-hop with its sights set on uber-cosmopolitan artists like A$AP Rocky and Drake.
“It was easy for you to move through / English class with your own thesaurus / like one of these days I’m gonna be a rapper / But all my verses gonna be borrowed / So I’ma take from all these Southern artists / That mainstream never heard of / Recycle all they lingo / And make sure I screw my words up,” he spits over his own beat as he proudly boasts of his “country” style in the face of the genre’s Northern and urban bias.
“When it comes to lyricism and being considered a lyrical artist from the South, obviously you gotta talk about Killer Mike, Big Boi, Andre 3000 [and] Scarface,” he says. “But the idea of being a top lyricist changes when you’re from the South, like the rules get harder.”
Big K.R.I.T. continues, “This is the only genre that seems like it does that. When it comes to blues, jazz, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from as long as you’re making great music. ‘Southern hip-hop artist’ is a weird category to be put in. I’m just trying to make the best hip-hop I possibly can.”
And while “Mt. Olympus” proves that Big K.R.I.T. sees himself in the pantheon of the very best rhymers in the game, he’s clearly intent on taking his own path, as the cover of his latest mixtape, It’s Better This Way, suggests with its depiction of a fork in the road, suggesting a “road less traveled” decision.
“For me, it’s just about being humbled and being really excited about where my career is now,” he says when he thinks of headlining a 1,000-seat music hall like The Orange Peel. “I’m comfortable with what I got now. I used to really chase accolades and wanted to be at the level where kids and everybody recognized me, but that just might not be for me.”
WHO: Big K.R.I.T. with BJ The Chicago Kid, Scotty ATL, Delorean and Free The Optimus
WHERE: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 9, 9 p.m. $22 advance/$25 at the door/$60 early entry