Besides the minor explosion in the early 2000s, Canadian hip-hop has never really seen the light of day in the American mainstream. Sure, acts like Buck 65, k-os, and Moka Only continue to create excellent music that reaches a niche audience. But I’m talking about big name recognition. And that is exactly what Kardinal Offishall is reaching for with his fourth album, Not 4 Sale, a title that is both confusing and interesting. It’s confusing for the obvious reason that many of his fans will call this his sell-out record, no matter how much they want to put Toronto on the hip-hop map. And it is interesting because although many of the tracks here are glossy pop productions, Kardinal has not really changed since he was first heard in the ’90s. Just as he does here, he has always mixed his primarily rap-centric music with dancehall, a genre at the roots of his soul since his parents emigrated to T-Dot from Jamaica.
To be fair to those who are eager to write Kardinal off, though, this is his first true leap to the mainstream. He recently signed to Konvict Muzik, an imprint of Geffen run by Akon, who appears on Not 4 Sale as both a singer and producer. Kardinal enlisted a who’s who of pop’s favorite hook artists: Rihanna, The-Dream, T-Pain, and the aforementioned Akon. And perhaps as a means to balance those singers out, J*Davey, Estelle, and Glenn Lewis appear as well, all of whom shine brighter than their more-recognized contemporaries. But don’t take that as some kind of holier than thou stance against the current pop scene. Anyone with correct hearing will tell you that Estelle clearly has better chops than Rihanna, whose monotone vocals drag down “Numba 1 (Tide Is High)”, a cover of a cover of a cover. The track might be one of the catchiest on the disc, but the hook just falls flat. The same goes for T-Pain, whose autotune delivery has to be one of the most frustrating gimmicks ever. His appearance on “Go Home With You” is boring and weak, though Kardinal makes up for it as he raps stronger on this track than on most of the others.
What Not 4 Sale boils down to is an inconsistent mix of production and guests. One on hand, you have “Set It Off”. Although the beat is extravagantly over-the-top and Clipse deliver some so-so verses, it’s still one hell of a banger. And Kardinal spits like a man gone mad. Hell, he even admits he is out for more green when he raps that he is trying to give his “tax bracket an erection”, but it doesn’t sound contrived. “Ill Eagle Alien” is another track that cries out ‘instant hit’. It’s a reggae-laced, rudebwoy anthem that features more of Kardinal’s impressive skills on the mic. And the production from Nottz is absolutely perfect. Not 4 Sale hits its peak with “Family Tree (Still Eyerize)” and “Nina”. “Family Tree (Still Eyerize)” is full of synth and heavy drums like you might expect, but it’s all put together extremely well. Plus, fellow T-Dot artist Glenn Lewis sings the hook with emotion and flair. For “Nina”, Kardinal slows everything down and takes the listener to his parents’ homeland. It’s a mellow reggae jam that both breaks up the more over-produced cuts and shows Kardinal’s diversity.
Then, on the other hand, you have tracks that just try too hard — like The-Dream feature “Gimme Some”, and “Dangerous”, the album’s first single that has Akon on the hook. Both cuts are clearly aimed at the ladies and the dance floor, which is fine. It’s how they are executed that makes them dull, though. We’ve all heard Akon sing about a “bad girl” multiple times before. And, besides the somewhat intriguing beat, “Gimme Some” is just lackluster. Along the same lines is “Due Me a Favour”, a difficult song to pin down. At first, it seems like a dud. Akon’s production is basically a carbon-copy of Timbaland’s latest work and the lyrics are nothing we haven’t heard already on this album. But the duet between Estelle and Kardinal turns out to be captivating and enjoyable.
Amidst this struggle, however, there is one thing that remains steadfast: Kardinal is efficient as an emcee and as a producer throughout Not 4 Sale. Even as he grasps at the mainstream, he never wavers from the original dancehall-infused hip-hop that got him here. Sure, some stuff is corny and boring, but the good far outweighs the bad. Would more tracks like “Nina” and “Family Tree (Still Eyerize)” have made this album great? Yes, of course. But Kardinal still succeeds in creating something for everyone on Not 4 Sale, even if that title is misleading.