Conscientious Canadian hip-hop by the son of devout Jehova’s Witnesses- what could go wrong? Well, surprisingly, not much, as it turns out. The latest offering from Kheaven Brereton aka K-Os is far and away his best work to date, a distinctively measured trip through the mind of a hip-hop mad scientist who appears to finally be comfortable in his character and refined scope of focus.
Brereton is a Trinidad-born, Toronto-bred rapper/singer/songwriter with a panache for introspective, philosophical lyricism and genre-bending neo-soul hip-hop jams. And yes, that’s a lot of fucking hyphens. The alias K-Os (pronounced “chaos”) is an acronym for “Knowledge Of Self” or “Kheaven’s Original Sound,” depending on who you ask. Both are equally pretentious, but carry the weight of a personality that doesn’t compromise soul for success- and that’s why he’s got a fixed position on our radar.
Since his fantastic debut album Exit in 2002, I’d been on board with K-Os’ fringe approach to hip-hop. His outright rejection and vocal criticism of rap’s Holy Trinity of themes- bitches, bling and bullets- set him apart immediately, but it was his smooth, unique flow and syncopation that truly made an impression. It’s clear right off that he’d much rather be an artist in an evolving cultural and artistic movement- along the lines of The Roots or Crown City Rockers- than one who’s gonna churn out some more club-mix bullshit while hawking vitamin water.
Exit got things off to a running start for Brereton, proving his skill set as a producer, singer and rapper while earning him the International Album of the Year award at the 2003 Source Awards, as well as a Grammy nomination and three Juno Awards (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys). His follow-up, Joyful Rebellion, wasn’t as consistent, and took heat for being a little too preachy about the degenerate state of hip-hop (despite being completely on point). Nevertheless, it was a sign that Brereton had improved upon both his style and delivery, and the album went platinum in Canada. His third, Atlantis: Hymns For Disco, was released in 2007, and while it still possessed the fire of his first two albums, there was a lessened focus on stylized flow than on commercial viability, which undoubtedly turned off many fans (myself included).
Where Atlantis was all over the map with an amalgam of influence such as reggae, ’60s pop, acoustic guitar and even disco, Yes! heads down a more organic, breakbeat-heavy lane, getting back into his signature flow and pulling some strings, tablas and keyboards along the way. Where he got lost in the sheer depth of variety at times on his previous outings, the pendulum swings back to Brereton’s hip-hop side on Yes!, and his rhymes possess a new, commanding presence this time around.
Like a hippie mix of Wyclef and Mos Def, K-Os’ production skills and artistic versatility have served him well. His lyrics are powerful and from the heart- a positive, conscientious influence for the hip-hop idol seekers out there.
Mr. Telephone Man is a great intro, a snap-snare beat over telephone blips and a mid-tempo flow reminiscent of Q-Tip. The Avenue, meanwhile, opens like one of the better N.E.R.D. tracks, giving way to a cymbal-riding live percussion jam, with bursts of electric guitar in the under Brereton’s soulful flow. His lack of concern with cool, focusing more on finding the right colors for his canvas, is beyond refreshing- his starting point is much more likely to be Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson than anyone who’s ever been affiliated with G-Unit or Roc-A-Fella. He’s clearly not the kind of rapper that listens to modern music with a competitive ear.
The Aviator showcases everything I like about the man’s unique style- the immediate gravity of atmosphere and spaceship-liftoff intro, the dramatic gravity of the guitar mixed with the psychedelic pulse of the bassline, the live drums, the introspective, understated flow that rises to a soulful chorus without ever drowning out the atmospherics of the instrumentation:
The track goes out in a digital haze, giving way to an absolutely bizarre reworking of the main riff from Nirvana’s Love Buzz for Uptown Girl. He loses his way here, between talking about snotty rich girls and a pretty ridiculous chorus (“I’m not from the ghetto, but my Momma is, and she’s an uptown girl”)- it sounds to me like something Andy Samberg would do in a Digital Short. Things aren’t looking much better for first single 4 3 2 1, featuring one of the more annoying sound effects I’ve heard in years.
Those are the only real low points, however, on a record that builds well off of Brereton’s existing material. Astronaut is a mile-a-minute narrative of what appears to be a ladykiller spaceman, and he spits a scattered, buttery flow over a hymnal chorus, a chopping beat and nylon strings on the excellent Zambony. The man’s got his own vision, that’s for sure, and with each release he shares a bigger piece of it with us.
The album is due to drop in March as a double disc, the second being a remix album featuring tracks mixed by producers who entered a contest through Indaba Music. Master “stems” from eleven tracks off the album have been made available to Indaba’s community of 100,000 musicians to remix and fuck with to their hearts’ delight. On February 3rd submissions will close and K-Os will select his favorite mixes from each track’s submissions to win both $1,000 and a spot on Universal’s companion release.
Is Yes! the best hip-hop album of 2009? Sure, so far- but we’re only 21 days in. This isn’t going to be Brereton’s big breakthrough album, but while it may not take the world by storm, it’s a burst of organic, lush neo-soul hip-hop and a confident step forward for the man.
Tracklist not yet confirmed.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.