Most of Rap’s promising up-and-comers have gained prominence from superstar cosigns. And more power to them: the likes of Drake, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, and Big Sean prove the genius eyes and ears of Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Kanye West on a daily basis. But Big K.R.I.T. has built his buzz the old-fashioned way: through good music. The Mississippi-bred emcee/producer’s mixture of introspective rhymes, southern ig’nance and soulful self-made production earned him a legion of followers with his free K.R.I.T. Wuz Here mixtape-album last May, and a record deal with Def Jam within the same month. less than a year later, Returnof4Eva shows that he hasn’t lost a step.

Despite being a relative youngster at 24 years old, Big K.R.I.T. has a clear respect for the southern Rap tradition—box-car whips, rattling trunks and thick belles are covered on both surface and personal levels. “My Sub” showcases and pays homage to sthe bass-heavy sounds that his region is known for, “Shake It” narrates K.R.I.T. gaming a scandalous stripper, and “Rotation” captures candy-painted escapism in a manner that would make the late Pimp C proud. The stellar “Time Machine” takes it a step further, when he and Chamillionaire hop in a slab to reminisce about their youths while shouting out greats like Scarface and UGK. Big K.R.I.T.’s ability to contextualize southern culture into his own style and life without featuring the legends themselves on the songs (aside from the David Banner-assisted “Sookie” ) is notable, especially so early in his career.

Another highlight of Returnof4eva is is an apparent “less is more attitude,” as K.R.I.T. creates emotive, conceptual music without complicating things with complex punchlines or indigestible concepts. Candid imagery and simplistic metaphors—“looking for a fix in broken times,” and the hunt-or-be-hunted mentality of “Lions and Lambs”—are more than enough for him to deliver his messages. “Rise And Shine” pushes listeners to hustle for their goals day in and day out, and “Dreamin” sees K.R.I.T. using a soulful backdrop to reminisce youthful days of pursuing a rap career. The simple, effective metaphors continue with “Highs and Lows” (“Life is an EQ of highs and lows”), “King’s Blues” shares the pressures of being the head of a households. The most complicated song here is “Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism,” only because of the “N.I.G.G.E.R.” acronym—and even that is plainly said in the chorus, which is stuffed in between three passionate, discrimination-tinged narratives and an excerpt from Spike Lee’s seminal film Bamboozled.

Big K.R.I.T. is already an exceptional lyricist, he very exceptionally produces all of Returnof4eva himself. With his skill set, respect for the past and a refreshing mix of confidence and sincerity, he has all the makings to be mentioned alongside Southern legends if he continues this output on his Def Jam debut. But when the cosigns come pouring in, don’t associate them with his come-up—just know that is when he has officially arrived.

DX Consensus: “Free Album” (the highest possible praise for a mixtape).

Listen to Returnof4eva by Big K.R.I.T.