In 2013, Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. was one of the most celebrated rapper/producers on Earth: signed to Def Jam, shouted out as Kendrick Lamar's competition on his "Control" verse and regarded as the future-minded heir to the bass-heavy "country rap" pioneered by UGK. His second album, the following year's Cadillactica, was critically acclaimed, but didn't make much of a commercial splash, and the following years would be spent quietly releasing mixtapes and Twitter freestyles. Eventually, K.R.I.T. and Def Jam's relationship would end.
His ambitious third LP, the double-disc 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time, feels like it's making up for those lost years. With jazz and blues informing the journey, he dedicates one disc to the front facing, trunk-rattling Big K.R.I.T. and the other to a more introspective and soulful Justin Scott, using the album to make what may be his most important statement yet. "The things that I leave creatively are going to stay here long past me," he says. "That's the reason why the album is called 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time."
We caught up with the rapper to discuss the things he wants to leave behind and what he chose to do with his new creative space.
The new album feels like a homage to Black music, with jazz, soul, blues and gospel influences. Why do you think we're seeing those sort of sounds come back?
I would say when you're dealing with live musicians and musicality, the warmth of a live instrument brings a certain feel to a song that is really hard, sometimes, to get from synthesized instruments. I think now in today's society and with what's going on, people need music that makes them feel like someone else understands. And sonically, you can get that across with having the warmth and the dedication of an instrument actually speaking to people instead of it being an eight-bar loop that might be extremely simplistic. Not to say that's not riding, but sometimes that doesn't feed the soul like a bassline might or a guitar might or a piano or organ depending on how it's played.
You're talking about alcoholism and depression on the album. Would you say this is the most introspective and open you've been?
I think it was important that I talked about how it is when you don't feel good. When I'm dealing with anxiety or dealing with depression or the drinking. How I have these fears of, 'Am I doing the right thing?' A record like "Price of Fame" – when you do get this success, how do you treat it or how do you let it treat you? How does it affect your family and friends and the people around you? … And I don't mind telling people what I've been through when it comes to the pressure I put on myself of wanting to be the best and the greatest. There's nothing wrong with that, but a pressure comes with that, and you have to realize that if you don't want to run yourself into a space that you can't get out of.
Is it hard to be that transparent at times? Like are there moments where you're drawing those lines between Big K.R.I.T. and Justin Scott?
When you get older, your perspective – stuff can change. I want to put those kind of things in my music, and I decided to. I never had the opportunity to split it up and make it totally separate. By doing that, it just created this space where you can tell I'm being as genuine as I possibly can.
The trailer for this album made it seem like you're having Justin kill off Big K.R.I.T. Is that correct?
I would say it's more Justin and Big K.R.I.T. getting rid of older versions of Justin and Big K.R.I.T. that are no longer needed and/or weren't the better side. It's growth. It's the transition to the person that I've become, because I've been gone so long that it's very important that people don't think I'm the same person I was when I did Cadillactica. … I needed that to be a thing – not only for them to see, but even for me to realize that whatever bitterness I had as an artist in the beginning, or whatever I dealt with the labels, I can let go of that now and focus on what's in front of me. I learned from it. It's still there, but I don't have to bring it along and fuel me anymore when it comes to writing music and songs. It played its part with songs like "Mt. Olympus" or records like that where I was super venting, but now it's a different way of venting.
"Mt. Olympus" really touched on the way Southern artists are treated and, more often, discredited. Why do you think that disconnect exists?
I stand on this, and I mention it in the album, geography plays a major part. … Manhattan is a 12-mile radius, and there's millions of people there. There's roughly 60,000 people where I'm from. That's a real difference in support when you're just starting. It's also a difference in where you have to go in order to make moves or for people to hear your music. I had to go two states over in order to start making something happen and then go from there. I couldn't make it happen in my city on a level that, if you're from a metropolitan city, you may have the opportunity to, and that doesn't take anything away from those artists that are from there. That's why I said what I said about it being a lottery – we can't choose these things, but I think it plays a major part in how you're able to maneuver and how you're able to get that support.
I knew about Compton in movies growing up long before it was a place that I could go to. I knew about Hollywood. I knew about New York just from TV and the artists. You're hard-pressed up until a certain amount of time in hip hop – talking about David Banner – to have known about Mississippi artists or culture if it's not blues. When I came to that reality, it made it a little easier to not be so mad at the industry because they didn't understand. … I just challenge people to look further to these artists in small cities that are actually amazing and talented, but they just never get the opportunity.
Do you think that sort of uphill battle compiled with the bitterness and the label situation kind of killed your momentum back then?
It's hard to say. It was a lot of different things that took place between when the single came out, album rollout, dropping mixtapes in between. It was just a lot, man. … We were selling out shows and people were into it and we were getting the clicks and people were talking about it. It just wasn't on the radio. And to some degree, that was necessary in order for me to get the push that I might have needed. It's one of those things where I try not to look too deep into it now because, for me as an artist, longevity is what we strive for. I couldn't imagine if I was always chasing a hit record. That's not the course I took.
You've talked about the healing aspect of music – specifically in regards to "Might Not Be Okay." How do you, personally, find healing and sanctuary in your own music?
It's like a release. Just getting it off my chest and being able to say how I feel with hopes that someone will feel the same way but just didn't have the opportunity to say it out loud. "Might Not Be Okay" was a really difficult record to create. Shoutout to Kenneth Whalum because I'd had a conversation with him about the climate of what was going on in the world. I had stopped creating a little bit about around that time primarily because of what was going on in society and I felt like what could I say? I'm just as scared, and I'm just as worried. It's all impacting me like everyone else, and music wasn't what I felt like doing. Music wasn't what I thought was helping. I didn't think I could create something that could heal the wounds of what was going on. And even now, I still sometimes feel like that, but I know I still have to say something. I still have to get whatever I have on my chest off – even if it's telling people that I'm worried too.
You were excited to have Bun B hop on "Country Shit" in 2011, and now you're the musical coordinator for his new album. How does it feel to have that circle complete itself?
Man, look. It's phenomenal. Really, you speak these things and you have these ideas while you're creating. … I was just a kid in Meridian – I didn't think it would really happen. It was a want, an idea. Fast forward to now, and it's something real. It's just a blessing. It's hard to explain because it's still hard to fathom. Sometimes I'm like, "Man, I just got off the phone with Bun B." I don't think that will ever go away just because, looking back on it, it's UGK. They made it cool, to me, to be Southern. That pride and that grit that they had and knowing that they came from a small town. I could see them putting on but unapologetically. It's just a style. I needed that when I first started, and more than ever, I want that to be in the forefront. … To be able to work with Bun B and be able to have a conversation, and the insights the OG has, and really be able to get just advice from him is amazing. It's definitely been very much helpful now, but it was helpful during the development of my album.
Just being able to hear the way music has changed and how he's been able to keep his longevity and stay true to himself and grow. It gave me that confidence. A lot of creating my album was being like the growth has to be there. People have to feel it. You can't be scared of where it goes. Some people are going to love it, and some people are going to hate it, but you've got to grow with the music. Yeah, man. I'm excited all over again.