Hey, remember this guy? Still exists!
I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I guess Lady Sovereign is the one, the first UK rapper with a legitimate shot to cross over to the US mainstream, the only person to emerge from grime and find a place on a huge American rap label. She walked into Jay-Z’s office and freestyled for him, and now she’s got a contract with Def Jam Records. I like Lady Sov. She’s a good rapper with strong presence and a distinctive voice and insane levels of novelty appeal (short, white, young, punky, female, goofy, bratty). But I don’t see her popping up on BET anytime soon; Jay is going to have to market her like the Gorillaz or something if she’s ever going to break even. I’m glad she got her deal, but it seems weird that Lady Sov is the one to break through when there’s a really serious star-in-waiting, someone who can hang with just about any American rapper, just waiting for someone to sweep in and turn him into the major star he deserves to be. Kano is ready, and I hope someone notices.
Grime’s moment in the media spotlight seems just about over, but the thing that critics seemed to like the most about it was its slight otherness, American rap conventions fed through rave culture and impenetrable London slang and heavily off-kilter low-tech production, refracting and distorting the guns-and-money talk to the point where it sounded just alien and different enough. (There’s plenty of stuff like that in America, too; Atlanta’s minimal click-rap scene is just as weird and self-contained as grime, but that’s a topic for another time.) But what I like about Kano is how easy he is to recognize and take seriously as a rapper in the American sense. He’s not squawking berserk West-Indian guttural nonsense in dense little clumps; he’s riding beats and talking shit lightly and confidently, making pop music instead of souped-up death-dancehall. He has an accent, but you can still understand what he’s saying. He works harder at his live shows than Sov does at hers. And like maybe only Sov and Dizzee Rascal, he’s managed to craft himself a persona beyond the usual grime crazy-guy-who-will-kill-you thing. His album, Home Sweet Home, had gleaming grime production but also weird Latin flourishes and Sabbath samples and slick little love-jams and self-doubting emo-rap. And even after a Fader cover and a high-profile US debut and a Diplo collaboration, his album doesn’t even have a US release yet. People are sleeping.
Kano’s bigger than grime, and his new mixtape, Beats + Bars, proves it. It’s weird that rap-friendly foreign artists looking for American audiences don’t exploit the mixtape form more often. It worked for MIA on Piracy Funds Terrorism, even if that was just Diplo throwing her vocals over different beats. Dizzee and Sov and Wiley would probably be well-advised to do something similar. Beats + Bars doesn’t have a whole lot of quote-worthy lines, but it does prove Kano to be more a rapper in the American mold than a grime guy; he sounds better over rap tracks than grime ones. The original beats on the mixtape are all simple and clipped and sharp, not heavy or squelchy or unhinged. Even better, he gets on big American rap beats both old (Dre’s “The Watcher,” the Youngbloodz’ “Damn”) and new (“Welcome to Jamrock,” “Dear Summer,” “Only U”) and just murders them. And he talks American rap-nerd stuff the way only an outsider can (“Murk like Cassidy did to Freeway,” “listening to BIG and Styles P”); you almost want to see him get signed here so he can get to meet all these guys. And the mixtape puts aside the “Brown Eyes”-type love stuff that he sometimes does for straight end-to-end battle-raps, still the thing he does best. I’m not quite sure where you can find Beats + Bars; I only have it because a friend gave me a copy. But if you can find it, grab it. Not too many American rappers have this guy’s cool arrogance and impeccable timing and calm precision; it’s a rare chance to hear someone who’s already a star whether the world realizes it or not.