K-OS fires back at critics

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Toronto’s K-OS is to Canada what Kanye West is to America: eccentric, outspoken, and famously critical of the press. The Juno award–winning rapper is known for phoning up music critics after a poor review, penning passionate letters to editors, and taking his complaints to TV platforms such as MuchMusic. Last month saw the artist born Kevin Brereton and also known as Kheaven sparring with Hogtown-based NOW magazine’s Jason Richards, who had slagged the rapper’s recently released third outing, Atlantis: Hymns for Disco. The album is K-OS’s most experimental and most personal effort yet, weaving together 13 whimsical tracks that draw on rock, pop, soul, and old-school rap influences. Atlantis artfully pushes the boundaries of hip-hop music, and is infused with a heady sense of risk.

Richards, who can be counted among the country’s top rap critics, wasn’t impressed with the project. In his NOW review, he observes that K-OS’s latest album “will only strengthen his detractors’ case that he’s a crossover pop artist disguised as a true-school b-boy”. This accusation has dogged K-OS since the beginning of his career, and it tends to set him off. In response, K-OS posted a heated missive (now removed) on his MySpace page about Richards—with whom he shares a Trinidadian background—calling him an Uncle Tom and claiming that the reporter was being manipulated by the racist agenda of his indie-rock bosses. He has since expressed regret about the harshness of his comments.

When the Straight catches up with K-OS for a phone interview from the Centre of the Universe, the artist sounds more meditative than mad. “Questioning my love for hip-hop is like someone questioning one’s love for your girlfriend or your friend,” he reflects. “I love hip-hop so much, and so I reacted angrily to that.”

“The real story here isn’t about NOW magazine,” he continues. “The real story is about two kids—who basically think a lot alike, are of the same culture—who have been duped into putting on a boxing match instead of dealing with the real issue. Which is, can hip-hop be expanded?”

K-OS sees himself as following in the footsteps of groundbreaking artists like Lauryn Hill and André 3000, and is irritated that some critics dismiss his creative process by labelling his music as mainstream pop. It’s an attitude that shows up often in hipster circles, he says.

Indeed, the knee-jerk response of many Canadian music critics—ones who are uneasy with urban music and have little knowledge of, or respect for, hip-hop—is to file K-OS in the crossover category. But to claim that he’s playing it safe and catering to the mainstream is to completely overlook the musical background of the emcee. K-OS is way more Wyclef than will.i.am: he’s part of the creative vanguard of Canadian hip-hop. He’s been recording for more than a decade and has led this country in its quest to find a sound that’s both unique and authentic—a quest that’s absolutely vital to the scene’s survival. K-OS is not mimicking American trends; he’s busy trying to be himself.

And, as a result, Atlantis is nothing if not innovative. The project is profoundly playful hip-hop, a lighthearted, hopeful attempt to cast off inhibitions and shed the shackles of the genre. The production was handled almost exclusively by K-OS himself, and introduces numerous new musical elements into the mix, including rock. What’s more, with songs like “Sunday Morning” and “The Rain”, Kheaven—who plays the Commodore on Wednesday and next Thursday (November 15 and 16)—sidesteps the bravado that’s de rigueur in hip-hop culture to offer up his own restless vulnerability.

K-OS is way out on a limb with this release, and he knows it. “There were fears,” he admits, when asked about the recording process. “But there was also catharsis and release and freedom. It’s weird to be scared of the thing you love the most. I’m just trying to get to the point where I’m not afraid to do music.”

While he has clearly conquered whatever anxieties he might have had in the booth, some would argue he has a ways to go when it comes to the press. One has to wonder why K-OS feels the need to respond to his critics. Why did he fire back at Richards?

“To tell you the honest, honest truth, I more did it to get over the fear of caring what people think,” K-OS says. “So much has been said about it [whether his music is hip-hop] and so much has been written about me, and you walk down the street and you wonder what people are thinking. I don’t want to live like that anymore. So I did the ultimate thing. Now everyone knows what I thought about that. It wasn’t really that bad. Sometimes we have to embrace our fears to get over them.”