As hip-hop continues to grow in popularity and prestige, it has tended to fall victim to the parallel forces of bourgeoisification and cheap imitation. Just as the Clintons have moved into Harlem, white suburbanites are taking over the mic. Rather than bards of the ghetto, today’s popular rappers are merchants of bling, prodigal sons exploiting the legacy of their artistic antecedents too often paid for in blood (e.g. Tupac, Biggie, et. al.). Yet, just as gangsta rap is being coopted by the industry, artists like K-Os are gaining ground in the growing disillusionment with wealth, exchanging promises of bling for promises of Babylon. While the transubstantiation of the b-boy stance to the rastaman rebel fist may carry a bit of pedantic baggage, Joyful Rebellion, the second release from acoustic hip-hop singer, rapper, and producer K-Os is an impressive artistic achievement bearing a timely message of social and spiritual import.
Hailing from both Trinidad and Canada and raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Kevin Brereton, AKA K-Os (pronounced “chaos”) has acquired a broader social, political, spiritual, and of course musical understanding of the global hip-hop phenomenon than the vision hawked by corporatized gangsta rappers. What sets K-Os apart from the Roots or Cody Chesnutt is this unique global and spiritual interpretation he draws from his musical eclecticism. K-Os finds derives inspiration from the spiritualism of Rastafarian reggae, the passion and politics of the Spanish Revolution’s flamenco guitars, and the soul and poetry of black music across the globe and all down the decades. One thing K-Os does borrow from rap’s cliffs notes is the power of the personal dis’, which he uses to open the album and establish the two armies on the warpath—the “MC Murdahs” versus the messianic B-boys. On the opening track, K-Os lays down his signature sparse and organic beats, creating lyrical space for his vitriolic attack against the music industry for exploiting black culture and marketing drugs, violence, and vacuous materialism. Blending militant snare drums and spicy Spanish guitars, K-Os establishes a powerful presence and political voice that resonates throughout the album.
Joyful Rebellion pulls no punches, building intense musical momentum that sweeps away all consciousness of the practical constraints of time, space, and genre. Each track stands out as a brilliant example of vibrant poetry and angst founded upon tight beats grafted together with exotic strands of global sounds and local history. The song “Crucial” is a catchy mash-up of a steady rock beat and electric guitars humming to the tune of Jamaican reggae, as K-Os does his best Rastafarian lament, preaching a mournful melody to contrast the poppy optimism of the beat. The follow-up track, “Man I Used to Be” puts the rapper in a totally different pose, this time as the Michael Jackson inspired model of pop royalty, his once plaintive voice morphing into a sexy R&B idol dancing suggestively over plastic retro beats, casting an obfuscating fog-machine mist over the leitmotif of manhood. The strangely intoxicating song “Crabbuckit” has K-Os ecstatically throwing himself into the rollicking bootlegger past of black jazz, laying down a heavy walking bass beat and adopting the vernacular and call-response pattern that recalls the arresting spirituality of gospel music. Turning back to contemporary hip-hop and even a little electronica, K-Os delves into trip-hop on “The Love Song”, a beautiful ballad incorporating lush strings, exotic sitars, freaky turntable scratches, and honest, earthy lyrics, blending them all together with even parts personal and political to craft a modern hip-hop masterpiece. Even more gorgeous yet is “Hallelujah”, a track that allows K-Os to strip away all distracting accoutrement and reveal his spirituality as an emotional hymn featuring folksy acoustic guitars and droning church organs. Either K-Os is able to incorporate too many diverse influences to count, or his work is truly innovative, traveling through space and time to break down mainstream understandings of the roots and meanings of hip-hop and building bridges between genres like world music, rap, pop, rock, and reggae.
Perhaps the only accusation one could truly level against K-Os is lazy flow. Particularly on the grittier tracks like “Commandante” and “One Blood (Jiggy Homicide)” the rap is lyrically alright but gets bogged down in a structure that feels repetitive and dull. Rhymes like “sonic waves/caught in the maze/ancient days” don’t do justice to the poetic imagery K-Os more successfully paints as he sings, and what is worse, does a disservice to the street cred built up by the genius of his beats and the content of his message. Most often, however, the flow is not problematic enough to detract from the whole, and K-Os is most certainly rescued by his gift for lyrical poetry and a finely tuned musical ear. Joyful Rebellion is indeed a remarkable and ambitious album that aptly demonstrates a rising and vigorous musical mind of which the hip-hop world is most deserving.
// Notes from the Road
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