The Catch Up is Anupa Mistry's monthly look at Canadian hip-hop and R&B that deserves more attention. In this edition, how a burgeoning generation of young Canadian singers are building on The Weeknd's House of Balloons and pushing R&B into new and interesting directions. And why aren't the media or award bodies paying attention?
Remember 2011? It was a mild winter in Toronto and when The Weeknd’s House of Balloons dropped, the prospect of “The Morning” and “Loft Music” soundtracking those crucial, hazy summer nights felt imminent. More than anything Abel Tesfaye has released since, HoB remains a definitive piece of music – a self-aware document of what it’s like to be young and living (or at least partying) in downtown Toronto.
It’s a slice of life, as well conceived as another 2011 record that was its sonic and thematic opposite: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. Both could be considered successful records, though the latter fared universally better with critics and awarding bodies at home and away. House of Balloons on the other hand was considered by many to be lowbrow and louche: a rap-fetishizing dud. That’s not an attitude that’s unique to the Weeknd; Drake wasn’t palatable to mainstream, non-rap listening Canadian audiences until he became meme-able. And in some places, he’s still loathed for being somehow un-Canadian. Read into that however you’d like.
Toronto is ripe for the picking when it comes to pop-&-B right now. But why does it feel like only those outside of the country care?
Earlier this year I visited the rebranded Tattoo Queen West to see SZA, the freckled, marble-mouthed soul singer who rolls with West Coast rap clique, TDE. Opening up was a stellar crew of Torontonians, including KJ and a l l i e, but it was Shi Wisdom who shut it down – before SZA even took the stage. That night she debuted “Young Gunner,” an angry, desperate, slow-burning meditation on police violence and the profiling of young black men. It was temporal and relevant and not preachy, but transformative. It connected, not necessarily because of the message, but because it’s well written, soulful and honest. It gave me goosebumps and we all went bonkers and she performed it again. The song is the centerpiece of her April release, Stranger Things Have Happened.
We have people living in this city, making music that’s almost otherworldly. They’re breaking from convention to write songs about the things that matter to them – and their concerns include things beyond The Weeknd’s template of sex, drugs and stunting. They’re narrating the complexity and diversity of life in Toronto, and in other Canadian urban centres. These are documents of the lives of young black and brown people that are absent from most national conversation.
No music’s given me goosebumps since Shi – and then in late September I heard Daniel Caesar’s Praise Break EP. Well, more specifically, I saw the video for “Violet,” which pays homage to the candy-coloured, mood-enhancing sunsets we’ve been having in Toronto this summer. (Interestingly, it was a l l i e who shared the video on her personal Facebook page, with this caption, “the kids coming up in Toronto right now are gna take over the world. this one kid though ---> is really special.”)
Ohmygod it’s true. I haven’t stopped listening to this EP, which is the most soulful thing to come out of this city since, well, Shi’s “Young Gunner,” and keeps me on the brink of tears for its entire runtime of just under half an hour. Whereas Abel and PARTYNEXTDOOR deal in material aspiration and bravado, Daniel Caesar brings unbridled soul and real whimsy. Praise Break, an allusion to Caesar’s respite from a religious upbringing in Oshawa, ON, channels the honesty and desperation and soulfulness of Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia.Ultra and James Blake’s classicist vision of pop music as presented on his two full-length albums – it’s guitar, piano, serious voice and a few gospel samples for thematic emphasis. To wit, Caesar’s first EP, January’s Birds of Paradise, features a faithful rendition of Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream.” Both are ‘powered by the IXXI,’ a talented collective that includes Caesar, Ajax, ON-bred founder Sean Leon, and Matthew Burnett and Jordan Evans, two producers who have worked with Drake, Eminem, Rich Gang and Bun B, among others.
The creative vision is strong with this crew. The production on Praise Break is refined, and almost suspiciously good. On “Chevalier,” a cover of James Vincent McMorrow’s “Cavalier,” you can hear floorboards surreptitiously creaking, an elegant touch for a song with quasi-religious overtones. A filmic interlude follows with dialogue from Casablanca serving as an introduction to the wistful, mid-tempo, “We’ll Always Have Paris.” But my favourite song is “Pseudo,” where Caesar’s cobweb-strong falsetto topline soars over a mighty gospel acapella by Gaither Vocal Band before unspooling into wailing maximalism and joyful, redolent ooh-aah’s. According to Caesar, this song was inspired by Dark Side of the Moon. Improving on the church-boy-gone-rogue cliché is a personal, coming of age story about love, alienation and self-discovery. We should protect artists like Daniel Caesar. His is a rare talent that deserves to be cultivated and supported, by and independent of any local and national infrastructure.
All signs point to upheaval; Tanya Tagaq’s recent win at the Polaris was a step in the right direction, while the Globe & Mail recently dissolved its dedicated music writer position (Brad Wheeler is still at the paper, as a film critic). On a recent episode of Canadaland, the music critic Carl Wilson spoke quite frankly on the malodorous Canadian media landscape. Earlier this year, Chart’s editor Richard Trapunski wrote about the unbearable whiteness of the Canadian music industry, based on the surprising inclusion of A Tribe Called Red and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan at the Junos (ATCR won for Breakthrough Group of the Year). That shouldn’t be surprising: “Electric Pow Wow Drum” and “Queens” are literally two of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life. They still excite me. Just like “Loft Music” still excites me.
There remains so much to be thrilled about, and proud of, when it comes to music in this country – maybe the solution is to broaden the idea of what constitutes Canadian music.