Indie music has become so predominant in America culture that it has earned the dubious honor of its own inner-stratification, categorizing bands in a process that seems a microcosm of America’s class system. As a result, certain groups are pushed into an upper class, where there is no famine of critical praise, and a lower class typically marked by lack of “credibility.” But a lot of bands, The Killers or The Bravery for instance, are forced into a middle class, where they eke out a respectable living on modest acclaim while the hyperbole is reserved for the sacred Arcade Fire and other critical royalty.
Well, I’m a Darwinist, and I believe that this is all for good reason—these middle-class bands, while attempting to remain on the cutting edge, hit trends a step late and thus fall a buck short. Of course these processes reach well beyond indie rock; there are middleweights everywhere.
When Black Star, Common, and the Fugees introduced an urban hip-hop renaissance towards the end of the 90’s, k-os was paying close attention. But, though he emulated the timbre and attitude of these socially conscious emcees on his first two albums, Exit and Joyful Rebellion, a vague, indefinable essence has been largely missing from his work. Whatever it is, it’s enough to stifle his progress as a successful mainstream rapper and stifle his ascent to the underground throne, recently vacated by Talib Kweli and Mos Def.
At times, such as during the “Superstarr” triplet that spans his first album, he sounds more than capable—blending spiritual hip hop with slow-burning ragga anthems and sunset balladry to garner comparisons to Wyclef; at its finest, expectations from such a claim are met. But k-os doesn’t have enough knockout consistency to move upward into that exclusive class. Such inconsistency was amplified by the sound-man at New York’s Irving Plaza for a small collective of hip-hop enthusiasts.
An unsurprisingly literate performance which saw no real deviancies from his recorded work, the only shame in k-os’ game is getting frustrating filler from an artist who speaks so extensively about the integrity of hip-hop.
k-os doesn’t have the ability to toy with the English language as beautifully as Kweli, and has to rely on the soulfulness of his arrangements and vocals to stand. Which only further illustrates the schism between his best and worst material. When he opens “Patience” by crooning “Swing high / Then swing low / I know / We all go,” it is infinitely more passionate then when he carelessly pats himself on the back. “At times / I look at my face in the mirror / And wonder if the picture is clearer to me / Or to them” (“The Anthem”).
It may be another example of an artist trying to wear too many masks. k-os claims to be down with Christ yet rains lyrical violence on other emcees; he dresses like Fidel Castro in his videos but claims he’s just a “B-boy / Standing in my b-boy stance”; and he alternates equally between flat, farty synth beats and soulful, carefully considered instrumentals that recall the golden-era of old-school hip-hop and native islandry.
So, what happens to artists like k-os? Although beaming with good intentions middle-class artists of his nature are easily replaceable, and may be doomed to be. While bumblingly occupying a space between mainstream success and artistic merit, staring up at a streak-free glass ceiling, k-os just can’t seem to find sturdy ground, not before tripping over his feet and falling back down the ladder. It’s a shame, too, because there are points where the man approaches resplendence.
But for a night in Manhattan, k-os’ performance was more than a typical hip-hop show—it was a portrait of what eventually happens to the middle-of-the-road artist. Marginalized, forgotten, and eventually cast-off, it’s a fate that may seem cold and unforgiving. Either way, if k-os doesn’t do something bold soon, it’ll be a fate well-deserved.