Joyful Rebellion

(Astralwerks; 2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 30 December 2007

Much as I am quick to praise almost all things Canadian (socialized medicine, reasonable drug laws, overwhelming liberalism, The Unicorns), I simply have had, at least in the past, a very hard time with the idea of Canadian hip-hop. It’s a preconception in no way grounded in reality; it’s not as though cold weather and rap don’t mix—Ryhmesayers, home of Atmosphere and Brother Ali, is proudly Minneapolis-based, and I can assure you all that Minneapolis is extremely cold most of the year round. Still, every time I thought “Canadian hip-hop” all I could come up with was LEN. Oh, yeah---“Steal My Sunshine,” horrible white-boy Canadian LEN.

This opinion has changed a great deal over the last year. Buck 65 seems destined to dominate the underground—when even Rolling Stone has received the memo, you know it’s gonna happen. The other Canadian MC with a major shot at an American fan base is Kheaven Brereton, aka K-Os. Brereton proved his skill as producer, singer, and rapper on his terrific 2002 debut, Exit, which earned him the international album of the year award at the 2003 Source Awards. Brereton’s production tended toward the somewhat unusual, employing plenty of acoustic guitar, string sections, and flutes, as well as more traditional drum machines and snare hits. The general sound ended up as a great amalgam of traditional rap, raggae, and black spiritual.

Two years later, Brereton has expanded his sound, tightened his rhymes, and delivered on the promise of Exit. While not quite as consistent as his debut, the high-points of Joyful Rebellion more than make up for the occasional weak passage. Brereton still seems to enjoy rapping over acoustic guitar, but he also is more open to funk, disco, and even traces of glitch-hop. The spirituality so evident on Exit is still there, but Brereton continues to avoid coming off as any sort of holy roller.

Opening track “EMCEE Murdah” picks up where Exit left off, with Brereton rapping over a beat that rolls off a guitar sample and features a chorus based off a flamenco guitar sample. “Crucial” moves things forward with a propulsive drum line and looped guitar riff (featuring a more than passing similarity to Bob Marley), but the track comes off as more dance-hall than rock. The mood is maintained with the disco-fabulous “Man I Used to Be.” As a rapper, Brereton may not be phenomenal, but he's certainly impressive, and his flow fits well to the laid-back rhythm of the track.

While all three of the opening tracks are hot, nothing on the album burns like “Crabbuckit.” Coming off the acoustic outro of “Man I Used to Be,” a simple, familiar bass line kicks in and is then doubled out with tambourines, handclaps, and bass drum. Brereton lets loose with: "Took a trip on a bus that I didn’t know/ Met a girl selling drinks at that disco/ Said ‘truth comes back when you let it go’/ Seems complicated ’cause it’s really so simple,” and he just rolls from there. That Astralwerks chose not to use this track as the lead single is bizarre—nothing on the album matches its groovy, laid-back greatness.

Speaking of the lead single, “B-Boy Stance” serves both that purpose and as one of the weakest tracks on the album. One of the few situations where Brereton’s production goes far overboard, “B-Boy Stance” simply can’t stand under its own weight; the rapping can't match the frenetic sampling and loops. “Commandante" makes up some of the ground lost, with Brereton stepping it down a notch over a latin drum-and-guitar beat. “The Love Song” is one of the most-traditional-sounding hip-hop tracks on the album, both in the beat and in Brereton’s use of a few classic rap one-liners. The neo-soul, singer-songwriter approach on “Hallelujah,” meanwhile, is ultimately skip-able.

Underneath a great guitar line, “Neutroniks” rides a beat a bit too close to Big Boi’s “The Way You Move” for comfort. But then he bounces back with “Dirty Water," the strongest track on the second half of the album; Canadian rocker Sam Roberts guests to help deliver the chorus hook while Brereton raps over a strong drum beat and looped guitar arpeggios. "One Blood” and the massive, latin-tinged “Papercutz” finish off the album on an optimistic note; the hidden ending to "Papercutz" is especially strong, with Brereton’s answer to Madlib’s high-pitched alter-ego Quasimoto.

While Exit was nothing if not self-assured, Joyful Rebellion does feel like an artist more fully coming into his own. Brereton has avoided the sophomore slump, managing to improve both his production style and delivery, while still maintaining the elements that made his debut such a distinctive piece of lush neo-soul hip-hop. Here’s to the Canadian rap revolution.