heaven Brereton, AKA k-os, makes a big deal of his multifaceted skills, resisting stereotyping as “merely” a rapper or MC. His debut Exit -- which was first released in Canada last year in a slightly different form before being picked up for wider distribution by Astralwerks -- is a carefully blended pastiche of hip-hop, soul, rock, R&B, and a touch of reggae, which admittedly sounds like a hell of a lot of new hip-hop as genre lines become increasingly blurred. What k-os brings to the table, other than a more-than-healthy dose of backpacker positivity, is a gorgeous singing voice and a knack for combining disparate elements until the boundaries are no longer even relevant to the actual song.
A perfect illustration comes on “Follow Me.” The song combines flamenco guitars and understated percussion with k-os rapping on the verses and soulfully crooning on the upbeat chorus. Still, Brereton seems a bit too caught up in his own inventiveness, as he declares, “I guarantee you never seen this before/ rapping over guitars and finger snaps.” Well, actually, I have heard this before -- k-os is far from the only one to approach the rap/rock fusion in quite this way -- but it’s still a great cut.
This isn’t the only place where Brereton’s lyrics get in the way. The singer’s unrelenting positivity can get just as monotonous as the guns-girls-and-gangstas lyrical subject matter he’s protesting, and ironically he’s at his best when he falls into the more traditional hip-hop subject of bragging about his skills. The opener “Fantastique” comes after a brief intro that plays up the album’s genre-switching tendencies, but the song itself is straight-up beat-centric hip-hop, with the bleeping keyboards and guitars completely secondary to the low-end and k-os’ braggadocio. It’s a joyous, inventively produced, remarkably tight three minutes of flows, and despite his insistence otherwise, this is where k-os excels.
Thankfully, it’s a mode he returns to again and again throughout Exit. The low-key “Freeze” features a sing-songy chorus and gently repetitive guitar loops, “Heaven Only Knows” cultivates a swaying party vibe in spite of its spiritual lyrics and dense instrumentation, and “The Anthem” hits hard with squelchy keyboards and thick bass. k-os’ flow is far from the fastest or smoothest, but his personality and overall happiness leaks through with every word he drops, making it sound like he’s smiling the whole time he’s rapping.
When he deviates from rap, things get more problematic, although he still comes up with a handful of gems. “Superstarr pt. 1” is a tranquil reggae tune that attempts to drift by on its pulsating island horns, but it’s a pretty empty approximation of the genre. Elsewhere, he dabbles in rock more successfully on “Exit (Call Me)” and “Superstarr pt. 2,” particularly the former with its over-the-top string section, half-sung, half-rapped verses and stream-of-consciousness, beautifully poetic lyrics. “Masquerade” and “Patience” pair hip-hop beats with soulful vocals, creating some gorgeous hybrids that seem tailor-made for heavy pop radio rotation. Instead, it’s the first single “Superstarr pt. 0” -- a new addition to the album for this reissue -- that’s been making the rounds on MTV2 and its ilk. With its hyper-speed jazzy backbeats, periodic gospel shouts, and k-os’ falling-all-over-himself delivery, it’s an odd choice for a single, but it sounds like nothing else on the album and it also happens to be his best song yet.
Exit, despite its flaws, is a remarkably promising and accomplished debut. k-os may fall short in his ambitions to write the perfect rap/rock/soul/jazz fusion record, but in all likelihood it’s an ambition that’s near impossible to realize anyway. Ultimately, this album’s charms far exceed its shortcomings, and it’s sequenced well enough that by the end, it’s easy to forgive its few failures. If Brereton just gets over the hip-hop inferiority complex hidden in his sometimes boastful lyrics, he’s probably got a completely killer record not too long in his future. In the meantime, this uneven platter will just have to serve as a teaser.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01