Kane Robinson is the 20 year-old British rap prodigy, Kano. He’ll tell you, too: “If you don’t know KA, then you don’t no” (I’m assuming it’s ‘no’ and not ‘know’ — ah, those witty Brits). Jabs aside: Kano’s album is ridiculously good. You can tell from his voice, the not-quite-sing-song, high-hitting edge-of-desperate voice. You can tell from his lyrics, from his first words: “I’m trying to perfect my flow / So my dough grows loads like Pinnochio’s nose”; somehow the accent makes it sound damn cool. You can tell from the music, which takes grime as its departure point and builds a coherent, accessible and unique sound only describable as Kano’s own. Together, it’s one hell of a debut.
Though he’s part of the Roll Deep crew that has given us, so far, Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, Kano is not the new Dizzee, or the new Wiley, or even the new Mike Skinner. He’s thrown the sound of each into a big pot, stirred it up, and jumped out dripping but proud: fierce, fast-slow, Kano. Five UK singles later, Kano is every bit as vital as those forces in British hip-hop, but nothing like them either. And that is what’s so surprising/intriguing/rewarding (in that order) about Home Sweet Home: that it’s nothing like the almost percussionless synth jabs of classic Boy in Da Corner British rap.
The album starts out pure grime and evolves. Kano himself has denied that his music is really grime, anyway, but he knows we’re going to label Home Sweet Home with the g-word anyway, in part because we don’t have many other suitable words for his music. Still he’ll rip us down in the nasal whine the British use to indicate ‘valley girl’, on “Mic Check” — “Whatcha call it — garage? Whatcha call it — grime? / Call it what you wanna call it, I’m fine”. Sure, his delivery is influenced by the LDN scene, but musically Kano’s drawing on more complexity: “Reload It” has Pendulum’s slamming drum-n-bass; “I Don’t Know Why” a powerful Black Sabbath sample; “Remember Me” is hip-swingingly Latin. Somehow, they each come out a perfect backing for Kane’s smooth, confident rhymes.
Listen harder, and grime’s characteristic sounds (synth-blips, electronic scratches and sonic swells) are still there, in the background of most of the songs, and in Kano’s flow, though it is cleaner, neater and more understandable. The humpty-dumpty rhythm that characterizes much of grime’s flow may be jarring at first, but it gets stuck in your head like almost nothing else. Take, for example, UK radio hit “Nite Nite”: “She got my favourite smile, her favourite style / The first hotel, my favourite time” (yes — favourite, not favorite). The Mike Skinner guest spot is apt, because “Nite Nite” is more garage than grime, all sawn strings and acutely observed, casually dropped lines with a Kanye-sped-up sample echoing Leo the Lion’s crooned chorus, “here we go again”. Kano’s vocals strain against the easy keyboard chords with a stuttering, fast-slow delivery: it’s utterly addictive.
And for Kano, more than any other players on the British scene, comparisons with Kanye West (an obvious idol to the younger rapper) make sense: they share overt braggadocio, a voice subservient to each song’s musical ideas, and that whole same-word rhyme thing: “My manager said this the quickest deal ever / I said 18 years ain’t the quickest deal ever”.
Other times, Kano’s charmingly young. On love-rap “Brown Eyes”, slated for the next British single, he “lo-, no likes” his girl; on “Nite Nite”, “maybe sometime we could hold hands in the park, in the sunshine”. Ever heard this kind of innocence in a rap song? Then a track like “Sometimes” pops up, and Kano reminds us he’s wiser than he lets on; because the track is on the edge of self-absorption, outer-space sonic-pulses save it. Suddenly, he’s human, with doubts, acutely aware of the pitfalls associated with such a rapid rise from spitting at raves to appearing in a fur coat on the cover of Face magazine.
There are so many highlights on this album I haven’t even mentioned: stuttering synth slash “P’s And Q’s”, dark, menacing testament “Signs in Life”, and — let’s face it — most of the other tracks on Home Sweet Home. So if Kano’s the next ‘best rapper ever’, why doesn’t his album have a US release?
Taking the album as a whole, it’s the drawing out of the grime’s experimental mindset into a commercially viable, immediately accessible form that is Kano’s biggest triumph. He’s still experimenting with sounds that don’t fit neatly into one genre: the synthetic blips and stutters of grime, the hooked-step orchestral flourishes of Streets-style garage; the overblown staccato sprint of drum-n-bass. And somehow, he’s found easy lyricism, menace, sweetness, bravado, and circumspection in equal measure. It’s so refreshing that even the customary boasts and the nods towards violence are subservient to the music. So in all that just about makes Kane’s opening joust justified: if you don’t know Kano, you just don’t know.