April 5, Danforth Music Hall
By Clark Kingsbury
The first thing to remember about Canadian musician k-os: he’s not a rapper. I mean, he raps, and he has identified himself as a rapper in the past, but rapping is such a small part of his musical arsenal that it would be a disservice to cling to that label. And when he arrives at the Danforth Music Hall April 5th, patrons should expect far more than a typical rap show.
k-os, whose name plays on the acronym K.O.S. (Knowledge Of Self), has been floating around the Canadian music scene for well over a decade now. In the early-to-mid-nineties he released a pair of singles to modest acclaim. “Musical Essence” dropped in 1993; a lilting, sing-songy rap track with a boom-bap beat and a vaguely Souls of Mischief-type quality to it. Three years later, his follow-up single, “Rise Like The Sun,” carried on in the same mould. The sound was very much in sync with a number of high profile hip-hop acts of the day. Hieroglyphics, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, and the Pharcyde, to name a few, all combined introspective lyrics with sunny, jazzy production over crisp drum lines.
Despite gaining some notoriety from his debut and freshman singles, it would be years before k-os would properly follow up “Rise Like The Sun.” While 1998 saw a sudden surge in mainstream support for Canadian hip-hop, k-os remained very much underground, his output limited to a series of guest spots and cameos. Finally, though, in 2002, came his ground-breaking debut album, Exit. For much of the record, k-os follows the mould of his previous releases: rap songs with sharp delivery, nuanced lyricism, and thoughtful production. But what came as a revelation on the album was k-os’ ability to fuse and blend a variety of musical genres to create a lush musical tapestry. There are hints of reggae and rock and more than a little evidence of k-os’ talent as a singer/songwriter. Exit‘s biggest hit was its first single “Heaven Only Knows,” a sweeping ballad infused with gasps of guitar and cello, along with soft spasms of snare drums and lilting moments of piano. k-os both sings and raps on the track, and the complimentary modes of self-expression bring an energy to the track that carries through the album.
Since Exit, k-os has released four albums: 2004’s Joyful Rebellion; 2006’s Atlantis: Hymns for Disco; 2009’s Yes!; and the brand new Black on Blonde, which was released in late January of this year. Each album has seen the musical innovator step further beyond the constraints of “rap” as a genre, and into more experimental territory. Joyful Rebellion, his most acclaimed album, went platinum and is chalk-full of memorable content. It features “Man I Used To Be,” “Crabbuckit,” “B-Boy Stance,” and the gorgeous “Love Song,” each of which, were it not for the distinctive tone of his voice, sound as though they could have come from different artists. Joyful Rebellion may be one of the most important hip-hop albums ever to emerge from Canada, and anyone who is sceptical as to the creative potential of this genre is encouraged to give this record a serious listen.
Atlantis: Hymns for Disco, and Yes! don’t hold quite the lustre that Joyful Rebellion managed to acquire, mostly because by the time of their respective releases, critics and the listening public had come to expect k-os’ unique sort of experimentation, and seemed non-plussed by it. Still, both albums are as unrepentant as ever in their genre-blurring styles, and there is a litany of standout numbers among the two track lists. Hymns for Disco includes “Rain,” “Valhalla,” and two joyful-sounding pop singles in “Flypaper” and “Sunday Morning.” The strongest efforts on Yes! include “Zambony,” “Burning Bridges,” and a track whose title we can all relate to: “I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman.”
With his fifth, most recent album, k-os addresses his love for mixing and matching musical styles head-on. BLack on BLonde consists of two discs: BLack, consisting of hip-hop songs, and BLonde, which has a much more rock and roll oriented flavour. It was a natural path for the multi-talented musician to take. The disc by disc focus gives each half of the album a slightly less helter-skelter sound than his earlier releases. But while each of BLack and BLonde feature some memorable tracks, and while the album as a whole is loaded with strong guest spots and cameos (from the likes of Sam Roberts, Saukrates, Corey Hart, and even the legend George Stroumboulopoulos), to a certain extent a seasoned k-os fan may be left wanting. The sort of frenetic discombobulation of his engaging earlier is missing. Jumping from quietly strummed guitar to full-fledged b-boyism to rock ballads and then to reggae-infused dance anthems might make for a slightly less polished album, but it also adds a genuineness and spontaneity that defined k-os through the early parts of his career.
When “Heaven Only Knows” off Exit was released, it’s fair to say that nobody who had followed the rapper’s earlier forays onto the airwaves expected the track’s lush instrumental arrangements or the soothing warble of his croon. With each track off Joyful Rebellion came the potential for surprise. The listener never knew what to expect with old k-os, was kept consistently on their toes. With BLack on BLonde, he’s lost a little of that spontaneity.
Having said that, the new album is still brimming with energy and enthusiasm. “Try Again,” which features Black Thought of The Roots, is a standout track from BLack, as is “Like A Comet,” amusingly featuring Corey Hart.
K-os is coming to the Danforth Music Hall on April 5th. Expect a mix of new material, the best of his older tracks, and a whole lot of energy and intimacy.