To call k-Os a rapper would be to sell the Canadian artist short. Even calling him “hip-hop” doesn’t give you the whole picture. Though he does rap and would fit in comfortably alongside Talib Kweli and The Roots in a DJ mix, k-Os represents a much broader spectrum than that which can be contained within a sole genre. The Toronto-based MC/producer’s sophomore effort, Joyful Rebellion, is all over the musical map, picking up some raw lyricism in Brooklyn, smooth reggae in Jamaica, sweet soul in Motown and even some of the indie rock influence of his home in Toronto.
Joyful Rebellion is hip-hop at its most alive, its most vibrant and most fun. Rather than take the purist stance, k-Os makes it clear that nothing’s sacred. He doesn’t stick to the MC vs. Wheels of Steel technique, or even the rap-over-an-existing-top-40-hit approach. Instead, most of k-Os’s tunes feature a mix of sampling and live instrumentation a la The Roots. And forget about shout out tracks, skits, sample breaks or any transitional device that just takes up space on a hip-hop record. k-Os ain’t havin’ that shit and Joyful Rebellion is all the better for it.
Rebellion doesn’t even start off loud or fast. Instead, “Emcee Murdah,” a slower, mellow rap track introduces us to the world of k-Os, with a chorus containing flamenco guitar and smooth, soulful singing courtesy of none other than the MC himself. The next track, “Crucial” is even more of a surprise — a mix of rock and reggae that sounds better on record than it does on paper. In fact, the song almost veers into trip-hop, especially considering k-Os sounds a bit like Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy. “Man I Used to Be” is an epic rap song that’s as good or better than mot “conscious” hip-hop tracks. But “Crabbuckit” is where everything starts getting really exciting. This track could easily be a single, albeit a catchy one with its “Hit the Road Jack” bassline, jazzy saxophone and chorus of “No time to get down `cuz I’m movin’ up.”
The first single, “B-Boy Stance,” is the best hip-hop single in recent months, a hot anthem fit for a breakdance battle. The accompanying video features its share of dancers, though k-Os, himself, is seen rapping into a fish-eye camera in what appears to be a forest. Regardless of video, the song is pure genius — a return to the simple, old school party jam. But still, it’s just one of the many interesting directions that the talented producer takes.
“Commandante” features more flamenco guitar and chorus hooks, but if k-Os is ready to release a new single, “The Love Song” is the one that’s most likely to get the highest bump count in car sound systems. The piano hook is simple, the beat is solid and k-Os drops some of his best rhymes: “This isn’t a love song/ It’s a sonnet/ Damn it feels good to see people up on it.” But then again, “Dirty Water” bumps adequately, even rocking a bit, sounding like a cousin to Outkast’s “B.O.B.” And this track may even win over some of the indie crowd, thanks to a collaboration with fellow Canadian Sam Roberts.
Though k-Os hasn’t been around that long, his skills and inventiveness suggest a sophistication seriously lacking in mainstream rap. Joyful Rebellion is much smarter than rap radio fare, but there are enough hooks and creativity to appease just about any crowd, except for those without open minds. As its title suggests, Joyful Rebellion doesn’t follow the norm, but it rebels with celebration, rather than riot.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.