In the year 2014, the only thing that moves faster than our current rate of quick-click musical omnivorism is our eagerness to regurgitate what we’ve already digested. Nostalgia is the natural, kneejerk reaction to a present that feels so accelerated and uncertain; no one’s buying new music anymore, but you’ll still gladly shell out $100 to see an artist perform their most popular album front-to-back in its original order to mark the 20th 15th 10th anniversary of its release. Congratulations: you just turned your favourite singer—that life-changing creative force who soundtracked your adolescence and whose music helped you through your darkest hours—into a preprogrammed jukebox. Just feed it a coin, press play, and repeat.
It’s been 10 years since k-os’ sophomore release, Joyful Rebellion, transformed Toronto’s most versatile MC/singer/guitarist/song-and-dance-man into a cross-generational, Juno Awards-crashing phenomenon, thanks to a string of ubiquitous, genre-agnostic hit singles—the garage-gritty reggae of “Crucial,” the Thriller-worthy funk of “The Man I Used to Be,” the scat-jazz bounce of “Crabbuckit”—that took up permanent residency on pop, urban, and alternative-rock radio playlists across Canada. But for the artist born Kheaven Brereton, that moment may as well have been 10,000 years ago, when you consider the dramatic album-to-album evolution he’s undergone since. If rap initially emerged in the late 1970s as a collage of disparate sources—pulling in street poetry, chopped-up classic-rock riffs, manually looped James Brown breaks, and primitive electronics—k-os has spent the past decade trying to explode that idea of hip-hop into infinite new possibilities, applying the same collagist approach with a different set of materials on each record. For a restlessly experimental artist like him, there are no such things as career milestones. There are only springboards for the next leap into the unknown.
“At the end of the day, ‘Crabbuckit’ is a pop song,” he says from his studio in Vancouver. “Essentially, my biggest success in music has been as a pop person. But you don’t start like that. That was not my intention when I made the music on Joyful Rebellion. I was just a kid who was trying to somehow change the radio. But I became that pop person, and then the challenge becomes, ‘How do you continue to grow as a human, as a man, as a person?’ You have to go within. And you risk a lot, because you could disappear.”
For his new single and video, “WiLD4TheNight (EgoLand)”—the first teaser from his upcoming sixth album, Can’t Fly Without Gravity, due out in 2015 on Dine Alone Records—that meant returning to his roots in Trinidad, the south Caribbean island nation from which his family hails and where the young k-os lived for three (not entirely pleasant) years. “I hated it!” he recalls with a laugh. “As a Canadian kid, I didn’t understand it. My Canadian accent set me apart from kids there—they used to say ‘Yankee go home’ and stuff like that. I didn’t fit in.”
However, Trinidad’s annual, notoriously unhinged Carnival—in which k-os was forbidden to partake as a child due to its black-magical origins—proved to be the perfect visual analogue to the spirit of artistic renewal captured in the track. The result is—in true k-os tradition—an exercise of striking contrasts, setting the song’s tense, tick-tock trap beat, swirling synth oscillations, and interior-monologue rhymes to images of gyrating costumed dancers, ceremonial street rituals, and a white-painted k-os surrendering to the exuberant anarchy around him. It’s ecstasy rendered in slow motion, with k-os finding inner peace amid a scene of pure uninhibited abandon.
“When I watched the video, it was like, ‘This explains so much about me, it’s not even funny!’” k-os says. “It gives my Canadian life context. I was always a wild youth—hence, another reason my parents wanted to keep me away from these types of events—but going back to Trinidad after never participating in Carnival and seeing it for the first time shifted my consciousness. It made me realize some things are just innate and passed on via blood memory. The mirror cast a reflection where art imitated life—a life I had never experienced, but that was in me. And I felt so at home in it.”
But the video is more than just a snapshot of a one man’s journey, spiritual and otherwise. Beyond reinforcing the aesthetic connections between Trinidad’s proud calypso history and contemporary hip-hop, k-os hopes “WiLD4TheNight” will inspire Canadian MCs of West Indian descent to more openly celebrate their heritage.
“Let’s keep it real: most of us Canadian MCs rap like Americans,” he says. “We all do it! With ‘WiLD4TheNight, I learned that if you present West Indian culture in your art and it’s authentic—not a typecast or pigeonholed version—that’s going to be something way more culturally impactful and real than if you’re trying to mimic what you’re hearing on radio stations coming from America. Lots of things in life are blessings in disguise, and even though my formative years in Trinidad seemed unpleasant at the time, I couldn’t help but soak up the panoramic exotic inspirations. I feel like the video is a little postcard from me to say, ‘Thank you for the influence.’”
(And while we’re on the topic of influence: given that he’s always eager to draw connections between different eras and ethics, k-os even posits the new song’s very title as a form of micro-hip-hop history, and an example of how traditions are appropriated and updated over generations. Lest you think “WiLD4TheNight” is some sort of response to last year’s hit ASAP Rocky/Skirllex match-up, k-os is quick to remind us that its roots go much deeper than that: “Just Google ‘Wild for Da Night’ by Busta Rhymes and Rampage!’”)
Can’t Fly Without Gravity—an affirmation that “the forces which pull you down are simply put there to inspire you to rise above them”—promises to be a more stripped-down, holistic effort than its highly conceptual predecessor, 2012’s double-LP opus Black on Blonde. In contrast to the seamless rock/rap fusions that had defined his career up to that point, Black on Blonde explored each half of the equation on separate discs and separate terms. “Once you chop up a bunch of ingredients and mix them in a bowl, you can’t separate them—it becomes an integrated mix forever,” k-os explains. “I felt like music had become like that, so Black on Blonde was me separating the ingredients to gain perspective, to explore the two sides completely.” However, the rock-vs.-rap dialectic at that album’s core still guides k-os on a more philosophical level: it’s not just a question of reconciling disparate musical styles, but of differing workflow strategies. To be k-os in 2014 is to find the happy medium between hip-hop’s penchant for rapid-fire releases and perpetual stylistic mutation with the more measured approach and timeless aspirations of rock ‘n’ roll artists—all while engineering his music for a post-EDM pop landscape that has not only changed listeners’ tastes, but their very physiology.
“EDM has changed frequencies,” k-os says, “and our ears have changed, too. The ’90s golden era of hip-hop was all about the head nod—you could experience a groove for an hour and just nod your head. Times have changed—the head nod is basically dead and now EDM frequencies penetrate people’s skulls. I love the old hip-hop records, but it’s clear EDM has one-upped the sonic game, and when I listen back to those old records now, it feels like something is missing. That realization is informing the way I’m making this new record. But you can’t just chase this boogie monster and say, ‘I just want to be on the radio and be a pop star all the time!’ My last few records were big productions, and definitely there’s pretension there and a bit of a motive in trying to understand this thing called rock ‘n’ roll and how it can integrate in a cool way with hip-hop. I was a mad scientist making test tubes, and some stuff exploded and some stuff worked and I came out of it. But I had all these notes after, like about drum sounds and tambourines over hip-hop beats, and things I wasn’t hearing people doing. And now I can take all this and approach what’s happening on pop radio with all these new notes.
“This new single, which is raw, could only be this way because I feel new. And to feel new, you have to go away from something. Can’t Fly Without Gravity is the sound of somebody who’s having fun, and more secure in finding his place in the pop world, because I was so away from it for a bit. We all need to forget something that we like so that we can like it again.”
Or, as k-os rapped 10 years ago: “The man I used to be, I can only see by looking beyond me.” Welcome to the great beyond.