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Sean Michaels’s songs of the week: Kaytranada and Leonard Cohen

Kaytranada – 0.001 %??? (2016)

On Monday, Haitian-born producer Kaytranada (real name Louis Kevin Celestin) was announced as the winner of this year’s Polaris Music Prize. It was difficult to find anyone who faulted the choice, even within the back-channels of the country’s jaded music industry. The award’s other nominees hollered their hearts out; headlines hailed Polaris’s first hip-hop winner; Wyclef Jean called Celestin to congratulate him. But the impulse to celebrate wasn’t just connected to the breaking of barriers, or to Celestin’s (black, gay, immigrant) identity, or even to the most important thing – Kaytranada’s superb, victorious album, 99.99 %, which I’ve praised here before. It seems to me that people are happy because this is a triumph for someone who has demonstrated years of creative generosity – from Kaytranada’s freely offered mixtapes and remixes, to his ubiquitous production work for other artists, to the warm, entrancing grooves that have become Celestin’s signature. He is an artist who seems kind, big-hearted and humble – as well as visionary and fastidious. Why wouldn’t everyone root for him?

Case in point: Kaytranada answered his Polaris win by releasing almost 90 minutes of free new music. 0.001 % is a collage of a mixtape, stitching together unreleased remixes (Chance the Rapper, Usher, Alicia Keys) with snatches of beats, wandering sounds, the sense of a cup (or a record crate) that runneth over. It’s an outpouring – and since 99.99 per cent plus 0.001 per cent don’t quite add up to 100 per cent, I have a suspicion we’re in store for even more.

LISTEN Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

4:46

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (2016)

The glad news of an approaching Leonard Cohen LP has been blunted by the revelation that Cohen (who turned 82 on Wednesday) isn’t well. You Want It Darker, due out on Oct. 21, was recorded in part from a medical chair. “[I’m] a little too weak to get out there and boogie, and a little too healthy to die,” Cohen told Macleans’ Brian D. Johnson. Immobilized by multiple compression fractures in his spine, the poet and songwriter collaborated on this 14th studio album with one man named Leonard and another named Cohen – his son, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen, and musician Patrick Leonard, co-writer of Madonna’s Like A Prayer.

On the title track, released this week, it’s hard to shake the impression that Cohen is staring at the same horizon as David Bowie was on January’s Blackstar. Cohen has the same steadiness of voice and seriousness of purpose: “If you are the dealer / Let me out of the game,” Cohen intones. “If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame.” It’s a song about admitting error and accepting judgment. “Hineni, hineni,” he sings, Hebrew for “here I am,” “I’m ready, my Lord.” And yet there is a familiar playfulness in the artist’s voice, and the track is illuminated by some of the best production of any Cohen song in years. The voices that sing with him are a Jewish men’s choir, from a synagogue in Westmount. Instead of making the music prettier, they help it sit up taller; maybe they even help it stand.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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