K-os, born Kevin Brereton, is a genuine neo-crossover rap n’ roller who’s music, much like your Ipod, might speak to hipster club kidz, pop chart gazers, Canadian indie rockers, dirty south electronic rap renegades, or reggae rude boys simultaneously. As it should –his rhyme and crooning skills took root in arguably the most polyglot and multi-cultural city on the planet, Toronto. And he’s quite vocal about his not belonging to any one genre – he belongs to them all. Says k-os: “I’m a historical opportunist who’s grown up on everything from Dylan to Marley to KRS-One…I’ve never seen myself as just a hip hop artist”.
On Yes!, his 12 song deep fourth album, released in Canada on Nettwerk/Universal, the now Vancouver-based upstart has consolidated everything he’s done before, and chimed in where his head’s at now, like a more musically seasoned audio auteur would, despite his past successes. “As cliché as it may sound, this record really does take the best elements of my past work” he explains. “Strangely, three albums later, it feels like I’m starting new again, with a new label, manager, and agent. This album is a return to me picking up drum machines, guitars, keyboard and going for broke!”
The opening track “Zambony” is an electro-revivalist dance floor number where M.I.A meets Justice and The Cool Kidz in Amsterdam to dance and get musically high - craftily using his keyboard as a drum machine, aided by haunting, ethereal vocals, strings and tabla, and spits some of the tightest rapid-fire verses of his celebrated career.
A superb danceable pop album in the classic sense, Yes! leaves behind much of the social commentaries present on his previous albums. Surefire stealth hit single “4321” utilizes the aesthetic template of hip-hop with a neck snapping break beat, but mashes up the other elements you’ve always heard on k-os tracks like “Superstarr Pt. Zero” with DJ cuts, a hooky chorus, upright bass blasts, and trickling piano plays. As its title slyly suggests, the song was intentionally recorded as a Bizarro rap response to his friend Feist’s Grammy nominated “1,2,3,4” hit (he’s done remix work for her on the Let It Die remix release on “Mushaboom”). As he explains: “I thought how interesting would it be to do a hip hop version of this song? It’s about the battle of the sexes, where I’m rapping “what are we fighting for?” Is this gender war going to happen forever? It’s me saying I hope not.”
K-os’ uniquely subversive hip hoppy twist on popular music and culture is not surprising considering that over the past decade, he’s regularly synthesized a stunningly progressive musical gumbo of hits. Having to his credit two certified platinum-selling albums (“Joyful Rebellion”, “Atlantis”) and one gold one (“Exit”), he’s also won multiple Juno Awards (2003, 2005), MMVA’s (Much Music Video Awards, 2004), Canadian Urban Music Awards (2003, 2004), a Source Award for Best International Hip Hop Artist (2003), and even garnered a Grammy nomination in 2005 for his collaboration with the Chemical Brothers on “Get Yourself High”.
As a musician who’s staked his reputation on playing the Angel’s Advocate, and provoking reaction like most good art should do (“I was the first Canadian hip hopper to smash guitars on the Juno’s”!), this other part of his legend has grown with each CD: he’s publicly beefed with music critics, pseudo punk rockers, Hip Hop the genre itself, and rising world music rap stars. And that’s just over the last 5 years. “Burning Bridges” is the penultimate must-hear response track aimed squarely at critics, haters, biters and fans who want to get inside the mind of this mad musical scientist. “I honestly don’t mind burning bridges because I’ll find my own way in the forest,” he explains. “You can’t be a genuine artist and be worrying about burning bridges, because then you’re just a product. Success shouldn’t make us all soft and coddled. There has to be somewhere to communicate subversive, candid feelings.”
K-os has written and produced nearly every part of all three of his three previous albums, and this one’s no different. As on his first three albums, collaborations are few (in the past he’s hooked up with Sam Roberts, Buck 65, and Kamau). And when he does on Yes!, its pure magic. “Uptown Girl” features who he considers to be two of Canada’s “greatest lyricists”, Metric’s Emily Haines and The Dear’s Murray Lightburn. The song is intended to in his own words “address the ghetto, but very clearly say that I wasn’t from it”. No stranger to sampling or re-tooling massive hits of yesteryear, for today’s purposes, in 2006 he recorded a stellar version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” for human rights organization Amnesty International.
The battle of the sexes is an underlying theme throughout. W.H.I.P. Cream and The Avenue both candidly speak to the navigation of male-female relations, but with a twist. The former song, arguably the catchiest number on Yes!, provides a thought-provoking and unique lyrical upgrade on how groupie-rock star relations could work in the future over piercing guitars and synths, while The Avenue, might remind you of The Police when they were marrying pop melodies with roots reggae riddim arrangements.
Still very much humbled by his chart-topping success (“…how did crafting these songs in my bedroom end up being sung back to me by 10,000 people in a stadium the size of the Molson Amphitheatre again?”), the haunting “The Aviator” is the disc’s most profound testifyin’ tune where the catchy hook: “I’m just a man, doing the best I can/I might fall short, but I love the unseen hand”) is meant to remind his old and newer fans that despite this impending global success he’s only human, like the (Human) League.
On Yes!, k-os raises the proverbial bar, starring as equal part fire-spitting MC, crooner and composer. k-os embraces such contradictions, and it’s probably what will make Yes! one of the year’s most hyped releases, destined to become a favorite of music bloggers, club DJs, pop charts and file-sharers.