TORONTO – Nearly four years ago, Toronto’s k-os released the exuberantly titled “Yes!” to a discouragingly reserved response.
After each of his previous two records (2004’s “Joyful Rebellion” and 2006’s “Atlantis: Hymns for Disco”) went platinum, “Yes!” failed to even reach gold certification, nor did any of its singles ascend past the 98th slot on the Canadian singles chart.
K-os had worked for a year on the album. And the chilly reaction to its release certainly wasn’t lost on him.
“I put my record out and no one really cared,” he said in a recent interview from a lavish Toronto hotel suite. “If I can be honest — I’m like an honest guy, right — I think I was a little frustrated by that. That I had this album ‘Yes!’ that had all these things that were cool but it was a different time….
“Sometimes something just doesn’t register with people. When you spend a year on a record and that doesn’t register, you kind of make an artist go crazy.
“But going crazy is the perfect thing for us,” he adds, a smile crawling across his face. “Because craziness is a good thing for music.”
By crazy, perhaps he means releasing what’s believed to be the first double album in Canadian rap history. Or maybe “crazy” would be splitting that album up into halves devoted to hip hop and rock, and insisting upon playing almost all the instruments on the latter portion? If nothing else, we can probably all agree that employing former teen idol Corey Hart (who accepts projects sparingly) to sing the gentle hook on a trap music-inflected record-opening banger is at least a little crazy.
Well, crazy is relative. And as he animatedly discusses his expansive, recently released double-disc set “BLack On BLonde,” it’s clear that Kevin Brereton has finally found a format that suits his wandering eye and eclectic roster of influences.
“For me, it was like a eureka moment,” said k-os, a fresh Blue Jays cap perched atop his head, a thick piece of gold jewelry affixed to his wrist.
“I think I might keep doing the double-album format…. I don’t have to pick 12 songs. I can actually give people more.
“As weird and immoral as it sounds, it’s like dating two girls,” he adds. “The fact that I’m interested in something else and I have a roving eye, it goes back to the very, very human thing that sometimes it’s very hard to be engaged by one thing.”
Truth is, he’d been hearing for years that his career was being held back by that restless curiosity, by that tendency to hopscotch across genres as if they were chalk outlines on asphalt.
Even though early hits “Crabbuckit” and “Man I Used to Be” flourished precisely because of their cross-categorical accessibility, many questioned whether k-os’s emotionally nuanced lyrics and experimental spirit would overrule his potential as a commerically viable hip-hop artist.
That theme would emerge each time the 40-year-old sat down with record label executives in the U.S., who would enthusiastically praise his work before musing on the supposedly tall task of marketing it — which usually meant asking which of-the-moment rappers could drop in for a verse or two?
“It eventually led to these conversations where it was like, ‘We need you to do something more hip hop — or blacker,'” he recalled.
“I don’t believe music is a racially oriented thing. However, it is one of the only things where you can walk into a store and buy people’s art based on what they look like, or their culture — so let’s keep it real. The fact is, I look a certain way (and) people look at me a certain way, sometimes (see) me doing a different type of music.
“So it was really on me,” he added later, “to come up with something that was interesting and that really represented the double sides of my persona, for people to get interested in it. It’s always on the artist.”
But if “BLack on BLonde” was in part fuelled by frustration, it hardly shows in the set’s joyful tunes.
On the rock side, the herky-jerky garage-rock howler “The Dog is Mine” has the live-wire energy of a basement jam even though it’s ostensibly a breakup song (about newly split couples arguing over canine custody), “Surf’s Up” is a slithering rocker anchored by a heavy bassline while “Wonder Woman” merges a downright pretty melody with an off-kilter swagger.
The album’s hip hop half is similarly diverse, highlighted by the skittering “Diamond Sky” (a showcase for k-os’s improved mike skills), the bittersweet Emily Haines collaboration “One Time” and the neon club jam “C.L.A.,” which features Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy.
In fact, the collaborators lined up for this one: Sam Roberts, Shad, Sebastien Grainger, Saukrates and the Roots stalwart Black Thought, whom k-os had been pursuing for the better part of a decade before he agreed to hop on a song.
One reason he was able to assemble such an impressive guest roster? He took his time. He spent two years crafting “BLack On BLonde,” working largely out of L.A. And — surprising for a guy who’s been among the most pervasively visible musicians in the Toronto community — he even allowed himself to disappear a bit.
“It’s almost like I lived life a bit,” said the three-time Juno winner. “The thing about hip hop is everyone wants to be on top all the time, so they make a record (every year) because they’re afraid it’s going to go away…. You need to give it up. It’s almost like ‘Lord of the Rings’ — give the ring up or you become the Gollum, ‘I need a new record, I need to do something now.’
“Give the record up. Give your fame up. People will forget about you. They’ll see you on the street and be like, ‘Are you Will.i.am?’… He’s a friend of mine but that hurts. You gotta deal with that, but that’s OK.
“There’s something to be said,” he added, “for being able to go back to ground zero. My advice to any artist is to not be afraid for no one to know you, for your fame to go away, for your bank account to be halved. Just make dope music.”
At this point, though, it doesn’t appear as though the time away hurt k-os any.
Early singles “The Dog is Mine” and “Nyce 2 Know Ya” have showed greater chart promise than anything he’s released in years.
That’s not necessarily surprising to k-os. He says it’s while the media and marketing machine might struggle to make sense of an evolving artist, it’s less of an issue with listeners.
And he hopes that spirit of constant evolution allows him to continue making music well into the future.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says emphatically. “You get better with age, man…. You don’t get old and decrepit. It’s a lie. It’s a myth. You get better. If people will let you.
“So take that for inspiration artists — you have your whole life to keep going. I want to be an 80-year-old guy, rapping like the ninja with a grey beard. Like: ‘Here’s my new rap song. What’s wrong with that?'”