**1/2 (out of four)
There was a time when nobody took Southern rap seriously. According to Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T., this is no longer the case. “We make it cool to be Southern” he raps on his major label debut, “Live From the Underground.” And he's right, particularly if that “we” includes the guests on his album. After all, those guests – Bun B, 8 Ball & MJG, Ludacris – have made it cool to be Southern for the last 15 years.
Big K.R.I.T.'s music sounds like a familiar blend of these Southern rap predecessors--its warm soul instrumentals suggest half-remembered Goodie Mob and UGK songs. But where K.R.I.T.'s early, much-buzzed mixtapes delivered lived-in hooks for car stereos and a few charmingly at-ease confessional tracks, “Live From the Underground” forces its feelings. Other than clear highlight “Money on the Floor,” up-tempo tracks like “I Got This” rely more on raw energy than memorable hooks, while the slower, more soulful songs can drift painfully into self-righteousness. Although K.R.I.T. makes some exciting production choices like on the bluesy, B.B. King-featuring “Praying Man,” they tend to come with the subtext that this music is a meaningful alternative to some all-corrupting mainstream that doesn't understand the South.
This argument is a bit misleading, considering that Atlanta has dominated the entire hip-hop industry for much of the last decade (not to mention the late ‘90s surge of Outkast). And as the Internet mixes regional sounds and blurs the line between underground and mainstream, the cutting edge of Southern-indebted hip-hop no longer hides ignored in a country backwater (Google Future or A$AP Rocky instead). There's certainly a lane for K.R.I.T.'s thoughtful '90s revivalism, but it might be wider if he spent less time talking about it and more time seeing where it leads.