Mirror in the sky

k-os tunes out radio hip-hop to talk originality, revolution and religion

k-os performed at the Ale House on Wednesday night.
k-os performed at the Ale House on Wednesday night.

Interview: k-os

In an age of pop stars who are either ciphers or deluded egoists (paging Brandon Flowers), k-os’s constant self-reflection and selfconsciousness is simultaneously refreshing, exhausting and perplexing.

Refreshing for its intelligence and modesty; exhausting because it’s thrilling, but difficult to follow his line of thought through his complicated answers to my questions; and perplexing because such a high level of self-examination and intelligence still didn’t prevent him from telling a NOW Magazine critic who didn’t like his latest album to “Eat a dick!” On that album, ATLANTIS – Hymns for Disco, k-os moved outside a more bounded conception of hip-hop to draw on different genres.

“I’m still a fan of [hip-hop] music on a spiritual level ... but I stopped, basically between the last record—even from the beginning of the last record ‘til now—I stopped listening to hip-hop on the radio, on TV,” k-os told the Journal by phone from his tour bus on Wednesday.

ATLANTIS could still be called a hip-hop album. It’s also a rock album, a soul album,
a pop album and one of the year’s finest records in any of those genres. With less focus on critiquing or defining the state of hip-hop than Joyful Rebellion, its more personal lyrical content is delivered through more singing and less rapping. k-os acknowledges and interrogates his fame without omplaining about it, and still has time to talk about his crush on Chan Marshall (“CatDiesel”) and wrestle with religion (“Sunday Morning,” “Mirror in the Sky,” “Ballad of Noah”).

ATLANTIS’s liner notes offer a wealth of information on the content and genesis of several songs. “Flypaper” and “Born To Run” both worry over the originality of their sound–k-os knows that “Flypaper” won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who heard “Crabbuckit,” and he said that even now when he hears “Born To Run,” “half the time ... [I’m] thinking it sounds like The Strokes or Bloc Party.” However, k-os said the notes weren’t intended as an apology. “I just kinda wanted to ay ‘Look, I’m being influenced just like everyone else.’ I feel there’s a lot of pressure on that character of k-os sometimes to be so different or original or surprise people. So I just wanted to say, ‘Maybe if you do like this music and you think it’s good, maybe it’s because it is derivative of other people’s music and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.’”

k-os strongly disagreed with a recent article in the Toronto Star, which argued a true countercultural arts movement was unlikely in this generation because of how Internet technology had changed communication and community. “Hey, those are good words ... now put that over a beat, and you did exactly what you said couldn’t happen ...
“I think revolution is just beating your own fears, doing your own thing ... it’s not about where’s my revolution, meaning the world revolution, it’s where’s my own revolution? Where are all the things that I said I would do? All the promises I made to myself? How come I’m breaking them?”

k-os, who grew up in Whitby, Ontario and Trinidad, was raised by devout Jehovah’s Witness parents, and from his first single “Heaven Only Knows,” the struggle to know and follow God has been prominent in his music. The song “Sunday Morning” is concerned with the tension between trying
to live according to spiritual ideals and the reality of the struggle to reach them. k-os said that tension is “the most creative place” for him to be. “All my adolescent years ... the type of fun I wanted to have ... I’d always think twice about it, like ‘Is this good? Should I be doing this?,’ everything. And I’m still sorta like that—you can hear it in the music, I question everything I do as I’m doing it. But I think ‘Sunday Morning’ is the acceptance that I’m always going to be like that, because that’s how my parents raised me. I’m always going to be questioning. I won’t be able to just make a song called ‘Every day is Saturday night,’ ... I have to throw the ‘Sunday morning’ in there ... as the voice of reason within myself to make sure [that] if I’m doing something to bend the rules of how I was raised ... I know there’s a greater good at the end of it.”

Two weeks ago, k-os made a controversial and racially loaded reply to a review of Atlantis by NOW Magazine critic Jason Richards in a MySpace bulletin. k-os accused NOW and Richards of having a racist agenda behind the three NNN rating (out of five), accused Richards of betraying his own Trinidadian heritage by criticizing k-os, said “You love Uncle Tom!” and recommended that Richards “Eat a dick!”

k-os removed the retort from his MySpace the following day but stood behind the basic argument if not its emotional content in an interview with Richards in NOW’s most recent issue.

Asked about how his understanding of God had changed with the expansion of his experience, k-os was aware of his dark side. “If I could figure out why the ozone’s messed up, I think I’m gonna figure out God more than knowing how many Scriptures I know in the Bible ... it’s a different reality, and maybe that—again, that’s growing up and just actually finding out what’s in my true nature as a man.
“The greed, the jealousy, the anger, the envy, all the things that people don’t like talking about, especially when you’re in the public eye and you’re supposed to be this kind of individual that has no flaws. I see those things—the more popular I get or the more famous I get, the more these animalistic traits come up in me. Why is it? ... That’s very strange. So in observing all that, that’s when I started to realize it’s a really a nature thing—the nature of man, the nature of God, the nature of the planet. If we can discuss the nature of things—to quote David Suzuki—then I think we’ll get closer to God.”

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