Big K.R.I.T. both epitomizes and stands out from today’s crop of young MCs. Since 2010, he’s used the Web to release three free projects, but the Mississippi native has done so with an album- level quality that makes categorizing the collections—filled completely with original production, first-rate creativity and lyrical potency—as merely “mixtapes” an affront. Each of these efforts have worked up toward his major-label debut, Live from the Underground. With this set, he’s built upon his stirring narrative and stabilized his place as a keen observer with an old soul.

While newcomers too often make artistic sacrifices to justify labels’ hefty investments, abandoning aspects of their core along the way, Krizzle refuses to do this. He’s unapologetic about his influences and the circumstances central to his development on Underground, as the traditionalist Southern aesthetic he established with previous releases endures. “Cool 2 Be Southern” is the thematic cousin of mixtape favorite “Country Shit,” while “My Sub (Pt. 2: The Jackin’)” follows Return of 4Eva’s “My Sub” as another ride-around anthem.

The roots of K.R.I.T.’s previous work are evident here, but new seeds have sprouted, and other concepts have developed into fresh models. “Porchlight,” drenched with Anthony Hamilton’s vocal soul, takes on the strains that come with balancing work and romantic relationships. Later, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” reflects on the importance of paternal companionship, understood better through the passage of time, while on “Praying Man,” K.R.I.T. teams with the guitar plucks and soothing voice of B.B. King for a chilling account of a slave’s journey from shackles to freedom.

It’s these nuanced sociopolitical themes—as well as the personal and emotional transparency evident on cuts like “Don’t Let Me Down” and “If I Fall,” featuring Melanie Fiona—that account for the value of K.R.I.T.’s lyrical stylings. His strength doesn’t lie in similes, though he does offer those. Instead, the cohesion of verses, songs and, in turn, the album, reveals his true gift.

As in the past, the Cinematic Music/Def Jam signee again handles production for the entire project. His incorporation of live instrumentation creates a grounded sonic variety, where notable moments like the harmonica on “Live from the Underground (Reprise)” and the piano melody on “If I Fall” play off the drippy synths of “Money on the Floor” and the vocal loops of “Yeah That’s Me.” The sounds are individually diverse but complementary on the whole.

In a time of formulaic approaches to club and radio hits, Big K.R.I.T. is navigating a space of bluesy Southern hip-hop like no artist in recent memory. With Live from the Underground, through deeply authentic takes on his own life and surroundings, the 2011 XXL Freshman has found a way to create some of the most resonating, least selfish rap music around. —Adam Fleischer (@AdamXXL)