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At The Opera House

in Toronto on Thursday

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If we are, as the social scientists contend, shaped as much by our environment as our heredity, then what would you expect would happen when a street-hockey-playing, Tim Horton's donut-eating, middle-class black kid born in Trinidad and raised in Whitby, Ont., grows up to be a rap star?

What you get, not surprisingly, is something entirely unique, a gifted musician who mixes soul, flamenco, jazz, pop, rock and R&B into an undeniably rap base. But because k-os has not been shaped by the inner-city black experience, his music is remarkably fresh. Where so much popular rap is bling-bling-this and Ho-that, k-os has, on his two albums Exit and Joyful Rebellion, pushed the boundaries of rap so far as to make the result all but unrecognizable. In his hands, rap is not so much a form as a foundation, a starting point where the destination is as surprising as a mystery-bus tour.

With k-os's reputation growing in leaps both north and south of the border, it was hardly surprising that his Thursday night performance at Toronto's Opera House was a sell-out. Certainly he has proven himself to be a songwriting and studio wizard on his albums. But there he had a lot of help (including the Vancouver String Orchestra, Sam Roberts and assorted studio hands). Thursday night's appearance would indicate whether or not he could translate it all to the stage.

To his credit, he met the challenge head on. Backed by a six-piece entourage that included two percussionists, k-os (born Kevin Brereton) offered up live versions of even his most musically diverse numbers (such as the flamenco-infused Commandante), refusing to back away from the complex flourishes that infused most of his second album.

But the fact that he is first and foremost a rapper was dealt with at the outset. He opened the evening with B-Boy Stance, a straightforward call to arms that lyrically and stylistically pays tribute to the formative (early eighties) days of East Coast rap. This was followed relatively soon afterward by Emcee Murdah, one of his best and best-known numbers, one which decried and lamented the failings of modern-day rap (blatant commercialism, tendency toward the generic). Rap's penchant for navel-gazing is one of its enduring themes, and one that k-os embraces with wit and insight.

But while his street credentials were established early on ("yo, check this out" was the standard introduction to virtually every number), so, too, were the musical chops. Guitarist Russell Klyne was given lots of room to stretch out on the flamenco break on Commandante, and the older number Superstar was launched with a scat-jazz intro before it morphed into a rap/pop hybrid.

Certainly the best (and best received) number of the evening was the New Orleans-styled funk jam Crabbuckit. Introduced here by a brief taste of Hit the Road, Jack, this catchy, Taj Mahal-styled stomper could well do for k-os what Hey Ya! did for Outkast, that is, break the artist wide open into every format imaginable. With a great hand-clapping beat, jazzy break and clever chorus, it is undeniably one of the catchiest songs of the year, and pushed the show into overdrive.

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K-os's biggest plus is that, besides being a capable rapper, he is also blessed with a remarkably sweet singing voice. This enables him to move confidently into reggae-infused numbers such as Crucial, or convincingly croon pop ballads, as he did here on his debut album hit Call Me..

At times, it almost seems as if k-os and company try too hard to cover all the musical bases. Integrating a hard-rock guitar solo into Man I Used to Be was an acceptable foray into Living Color territory. But the extended percussion solo mid-set was perhaps overreaching, to some degree. Still, it's hard to criticize anyone for trying too hard. If k-os's bold synthesis of rap with virtually every other pop music style sometimes forces the issue, it's also true that the results are usually never less than invigorating.

K-os performs in Kingston on Thursday, Guelph, Ont., on Nov. 7, Vancouver on Nov. 19 and Calgary on Nov. 20.

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