A weird thing happens when an artist gets signed to a major label. It seems, no matter how talented they are, no matter how much their fans are willing to support, debut albums almost always come up short. There have been exceptions, of course. (Logic's Under Pressure being the most recent example.) But, more often than not, the curse of a major label signing is very real. Perhaps no record illustrates this point more clearly than Big K.R.I.T.'s Live From The Underground. Building off the momentum of three critically-heralded mixtapes--or "free albums" as K.R.I.T. would call them--the LP found the emcee out of his comfort zone, reaching for and failing to grasp hit singles. It's a sad fact of life that major labels only want to sign major artists who can record major hits. No one--not Drake, not Lil Wayne, not Kendrick Lamar--is going to secure a release date without a hit single (unless Anonymous threatens to hack the label's database, at least). Some artists pull off crossover appeal without compromising artistic integrity. K.R.I.T., evidently, was not one of those artists. The Krizzle that the fans had come to know and love was lost on "Yeah Dats Me," and certainly had nothing to do with "What U Mean." The album, ultimately, was passable. But, until that point, "passable" was never a word associated with K.R.I.T.

After Live From The Underground failed to launch him to hip-hop's A-list, K.R.I.T. returned to the basics. Just under a year later, he hit fans with a brand new mixtape: the self-titled King Remembered In Time. Fans rejoiced, but the project suffered from an entirely new problem: it felt stale. There's probably nothing worse for an artist to hear than their music has lost its vitality. The music industry is a quickly developing monster; sounds are always evolving. If you don't stay ahead of the game, you'll soon be behind it. For a moment, K.R.I.T. fell behind. For a moment.

On Cadillactica, K.R.I.T. returns in full form. Thanks largely to a newfound willingness to collaborate with outside producers, the album feels like what Live From The Underground attempted to be: a mainstream-friendly but musically adept major release. Instrumentals from Mike Will Made It, Alex Da Kid, and Jim Jonsin impressively mimic K.R.I.T.'s well-honed sound while sticking to their individual strengths as producers. The first half of the album ("Kreation" to the "Standby" interlude) is particularly impressive, with the title track and "My Sub Pt. 3" being must-downloads for southern hip-hop fans. "Pay Attention," the Rico Love-featuring first single, still finds K.R.I.T. struggling for radio-status and not quite getting there, but it's a passable listen regardless.

It's in the album's second half where things get a little bit wonky. While nothing is outright unlistenable, there are quite a few missed targets. "Do You Love Me For Real" would be passable filler on an R&B release with a talented vocalist, but K.R.I.T. exceeds his reach. While off-key singing has its place (see Eminem's "Hailie's Song," which gets by on good intention), it feels unjustifiable here. "Lost Generation," meanwhile, suffers from one of the laziest features of Lupe Fiasco's career--an enormous letdown considering K.R.I.T. kills his verses. Luckily for the listener, for every missed target, there's one "Saturday=Celebration" or "Third Eye," tracks that deserve and require repeated listens. The "Mt. Olympus" reprise, too, is a welcome addition, even if the instrumental on the original is a bit stronger.

Overall, Cadillactica" will be remembered in time as one of 2014's best hip-hop albums. Is it a flawless? Not quite. But it is a sign that K.R.I.T. is heading in the right direction. If he continues down the path, he'll release his classic album soon enough.