Standing high above his competition in what was already a banner month for the mixtape game, Big K.R.I.T. made summer come early by giving fans of underground rap the sleeper hit of the season. ReturnOf4eva‘s varied production is the work of someone who has clearly learned much from Atlanta’s Organized Noize and Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia, but steeped as the tape’s production style is in the Southern rap idiom, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t break K.R.I.T. to a wider audience. ReturnOf4Eva is too rich, too catchy, too wise, ultimately just too damn good to be appreciated only in one regional niche, and the fact that K.R.I.T. engineered every one of its tracks on his own should establish him as the most complete and exciting rapper-writer-producer package to enter the game since Kanye West. But if K.R.I.T. ever reaches that level of success, it will be on no one’s terms but his own: Much of the material here could slay on rap radio, but even could-be singles like the Chamillionaire-featuring “Time Machine” display the skewed pop sensibility of a deeply idiosyncratic talent. Like K.R.I.T. says on “R4 Theme Song”: “Mainstream is cool but in my heart forever underground.”
Hearing ReturnOf4Eva is like living in a fantasy world where Pimp C had never died, or one where he still died, but not before contributing some of his sizzurp-spiked DNA to a mad scientist’s Build a Better Southern MC project, where it would be spliced with André 3000’s melodic drawl and T.I.‘s knack for stern-ass sermonizing. Like both of those rappers, K.R.I.T.‘s priority is party music, but that doesn’t make him the least bit afraid to preach. He admits to passing on a record deal because he didn’t trust the suits who’d be running his career from that point on, and behind his calls for artistic integrity stands a general disillusionment with rap’s ghetto provincialism (just listen to the sonically jazzy, lyrically scathing “Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed & Encouraging Racism.” In the company of such material, there’s something instructive about tracks like “Rotation” and “Time Machine,” where K.R.I.T.‘s effusive love of his car signifies an entirely non-acquisitive kind of materialism: It’s about loving the simple old thing he’s got, not about wanting the souped-up whip he could never afford.
Cars, consumerism, mortality: K.R.I.T.‘s rhymes never get too technical, but his unshowy style still allows him to comment on a huge array of themes, using ReturnOf4Eva‘s considerable canvas to touch on things simple and sublime. Over an hour long and containing 21 tracks, ReturnOf4Eva provides K.R.I.T. am ample showcase as both an MC and a staggeringly gifted producer. Among the album’s finer tracks are “R4 Theme Song,” which sounds like UGK’s “International Player’s Anthem” if it had been a J Dilla production, the spaced-out, Badu-sampling “King’s Blues,” and, above all, “The Vent.” That slow-burning confessional, cordoned off to the very end of the set, is a spacious plea for understanding that touches on death—a friend’s, Kurt Cobain’s, really everyone’s—and weighs the relative merits of rap and real conversation as outlets for the resulting pain. Yeah, shit gets heavy—and that mournful, dive-bombing synth sample, plus all the quiet space around it, conveys K.R.I.T.‘s feelings perfectly. The MC can’t completely unburden his soul without dropping a few clunkers in the process, but “The Vent” remains a stunning listen, the best-yet encapsulation of everything K.R.I.T. can do and everything he’ll have to overcome (mainly his tendency toward the overwrought and the overthought) in order to do it.
Is ReturnOf4Eva the best mixtape of the month? Yeah, but that’s not the half of it. I’d say it’s the rap album to beat in 2011 so far, but even that doesn’t do it justice; it just means I like it more than Saigon’s The Greatest Story Never Told, pretty much the only decent rap LP to hit shelves in the past three months. Let me put it this way: This weekend I suffered the cruelest April Fool’s Day joke which could possibly have been perpetrated on me. The love of my life sent me a link to a “new OutKast song,” knowing full well that I love OutKast more than nearly all other music, knowing full well how desperately I’ve clung to each rumor of an upcoming album, only to send me to a loop of Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” This placed a strain on our relationship which has only been rivaled by our inability to agree on the relative non-shittiness of any of this season’s American Idol competitors. But more significantly, it left me fiending for some new OutKast, and I’ve got to say, while K.R.I.T. is far from touching their mantle, he’s without a doubt the most promising and innovative Southern rapper to emerge since the legendary Atlanta duo hit their peak.