Rock a crown but don’t need to be Toronto’s king, I’m happy as its Poet, with a sixth sense for Toronto’s dreams Humble the Poet, “I am Toronto”
I like to take long drives through the GTA, down Toronto streets like Eglinton, Yonge, and Derry. I drive my Honda Accord down pot-holed roads usually in the evening when the light is low and the blue sky is besmirched with cloud cover. I pass through suburbs, neighborhoods and dissolved municipalities like Rexdale, Malton and Scarborough if I’m feeling up for a long drive. On my drive I pass commercial stretches and multiethnic park filled benches, churches beside gurdwaras beside temples beside mosques, run down plazas with Mandarin symbols on signs and car repair shops with cheap deals. I always wonder; if these streets had a voice, what would they sound like? Would they sound like the excessive rock filler that comes out of the irrelevant Edge 102.1? Would they sound like the Drake obsessed, hit driven stations Kiss 92.5 or Z103.5? What does Toronto sound like?
I never thought I’d be so fortunate to represent this portion of the planet, I formally invite you to my city Humble the Poet, “I am Toronto”
Until now I haven’t found good music to complement the slideshow of images I see driving through Toronto. As a Torontonian, I get real embarrassed when I hear tracks like the “The Anthem” by Kardinal Offishall chewing up popular FM radio or K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” becoming good sentiment pop filler on the world stage. I get embarrassed because I know someone in the United States equates them to be a true representation of the sound coming out of Toronto. The sound may come from here, but it isn’t a true representation of its birthplace. Take it from someone who lives here. Fortunately, Humble the Poet, the young Sikh rapper who invaded headphones in 2009 with instantly infectious, socially conscious, rhymes (check out Gori Girl’s article Young Sikhs of Youtube), sets out to find Toronto’s true character on 00:03. A huge step up from his previous efforts 00:05 and 00:04, his “poet project” this time around is to explore his hometown – its multiculturalism, racism, beauty, issues etc – in an attempt to discover a new hip hop consciousness. This becomes apparent with the raw interview clips that begin the first track “I am Toronto” followed by Humble name checking popular spots and Toronto MCs before him. Right from the start, the tone of the album is established: 00:03 is a loose concept album in which Toronto serves as the creative mental space you embody in every song. Everything Humble raps about on this record happens in Toronto, no matter how far removed the lyrics. And while the execution isn’t perfect, the effort is brilliant. This is a record with layers and double meanings. Humble has always been a rapper whose lyric sheets are meant to be scoured through, whose rhymes you pay attention to. The reason why the record is successful in its execution is because Humble has done his research. He knows Toronto. The record lives and breathes Toronto. Listening to 00:03, you don’t get gimmicky images of the CN Tower or the Toronto skyline. Rather we find ourselves in the dwellings of true Torontonians, the immigrants trying to make it (“Life of an Immigrant”), the bruised women in abusive relationships (“LovHer More”), the playgrounds and schools where children of all different backgrounds come together to be Torontonian (“Bring It On”). And although there are quite a few tracks where Humble simply hates on haters and stacks himself up, Humble’s vision of Toronto rarely falters. It encompasses not only downtown but also its boroughs and suburban neighborhoods. Don’t expect Drake-esque T.dot shout outs that have no relevance to the music. For once Toronto isn’t a gimmick to rep about, but a conceptual thread. The fifteen tracks that comprise the album represent a well-paced, cohesive, tighter piece of music that is closer to an album than Humble has ever released. To call it a mixtape is, well, being humble. Rather than the 30 odd tracks on previous efforts, Humble and beat-poet in crime Sikh Knowledge go the way of quality control and reach a level of music rivaling current major releases. Their sound has matured and both are surer of themselves than before.
Claimed I’d be garbage if I didn’t have Sikh Knowledge, I’ll agree then have him spit a verse, just to add the malish, that means rub it in Humble the Poet, “MiddleRingPinky”
Humble may be the star here, but the hidden mastermind is producer Sikh Knowledge. His post-Dilla production style and professional mixing chops lend themselves brilliantly to Humble’s magnetic flow. The duo’s chemistry is one of the main draws here. In fact, at times their chemistry recalls that of RZA and GZA circa Liquid Swords, with Sikh Knowledge even sampling the latter’s “Killah Hills 10304” on the Algerian influenced “Life of an Immigrant.” Sikh Knowledge produces eight tracks here and each one of them pops. His lyrical contributions also match Humble’s on every featured track. Other up and coming producers on 00:03 include KenLo, JazzFeezy and Humble affiliate Dvious Mindz.
They say my name with mad undertones like sick for Sikh, they ain’t aspirate the K like my momma taught me, like they aspirated back in the Indus Valley, ain’t nothin’ latin about me Sikh Knowledge, “Mohamed Said”
The record consists of two apparent halves, with a twenty second blank intermission clipped at the end of “Baagi Music” to let you take everything in. “Mohamed Said”, the brilliant Jay Electronica revisit is an early highlight with memorable performances by Sikh Knowledge and the wonderful Selena Dhillon. “Radis Hate” by producer KenLo has Humble rapping over a tame Flying Lotus/Samiyam tinged number that doesn’t quite match the quality of the other tracks but is a great exercise in variety. It segues well into “Fighters”, a Lupe Fiasco revisit that Humble does better. The Eastern-capped synthesized oscillations of “LovHer More” serve as the emotional highpoint of the record. The track is about abuse against women in all communities and features Humble’s most vivid verse to date (check out my article on the Indian Honor Attitude for more info on this topic). “Realistaani Intermezzo # 1”, one of two intermezzos on the album, features a greater glimpse at Sikh Knowledge’s vocal range, which is used in great subtlety on “LovHer More”. The first half of the album ends with “Baagi Music”, the cult favorite Punjabi rebel anthem. This is Humble's party track that unites all the peoples of Punjab regardless of creed, caste or social status, charging them to rebel against the status quo (Indian Government) and media (Bollywood) that seeks to define them through stereotypes. This song is not just for Punjabis; it is for everyone who's ever felt oppressed by authorities and rebelled. According to Humble, it's the song he wants to "be played at weddings." Can't wait to see that.
Addressing avenues, pass the fuse and light it up, half of you don’t like this stuff, the other half get high off us. Mandeep Sethi, “Gutter”
The second half starts with another track addressing haters; “MiddleRingPinky”, a Rich Boy revisit, features Humble affiliate Hoodini delivering an ill verse (Humble appeared on Hoodini&Kings excellent A California Classic). DviousMindz’s first contribution to the record comes in the form of “Bring It On,” and features frequent collaborators B Magic and Noyz. Together they recall the chemistry of early A Tribe Called Quest. It’s a calming, melancholy number in the vain of Raekwon’s “Heaven and Hell” that references street life and facing adversity with cathartic sorrow. Definitely a favorite of mine, it’s the track you listen to after a long day’s work and because of that, it is the album’s most replayable. “Gutter”, the strongest track on the album, both in production and lyrical prowess, follows in subdued brilliance. This is due in large part to the appearance of Mandeep Sethi, who delivers a soon to be classic verse. “Gutter” also includes Humble’s strongest verse and the same can be said about guest Ras Ceylon’s verse. The track evokes trekking through Sergio Leone’s desert with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack streaming through your headphones. Producer JazzFeezy adds some Dr. Dre influenced beats backed by strings on “Pray for Me” which features Red Shortz. “Pray for Me” has a lower volume than the other tracks and doesn’t really cut that deep. It is followed by the powerful RZA influenced “Life of an Immigrant” which features a haunting chorus sung in Arabic. Sikh Knowledge takes the “Killah Hills” sample and gives it a reggae bent. It is among the strongest tracks on the record, along with “LovHer More” and “Gutter”. Finally, Dvious Mindz’ “Goodbye” rounds off the record with an emotional rock influenced production which has Humble delivering a verse that recalls Eminem’s flow on “Stan”. It is immediately followed by a remix of “MiddleRingPinky” that showcases another side of Sikh Knowledge’s production style. The set list is tight but not without some problems. There is a clear contrast in production quality. Overall, Sikh Knowledge’s productions are the ones that steal the show. This is a problem because they make the other tracks seem less satisfying, anticlimactic, even second rate at times. This is particularly evident with the productions by KenLo and JazzFeezy, which are pushed into the realm of filler when next to Sikh Knowledge (witness “Pray for Me” next to “Life of an Immigrant” and you’ll notice the contrast). Sikh really sets the bar high. This is not to say the other producers contribute bad tracks. Dvious Mindz’s style really shows on this release. However, in sound quality, you can tell Sikh is more experienced. For example, “Goodbye” is a great way to end the set, and features Humble’s most vulnerable rap, but the drums become too muddled in the production to be heard by the midway mark. These are minor quibbles, and it must be said that Dvious will likely match Sikh’s measure of ambition on subsequent releases.
Work harder than harder, lazy is an allergy, my sinuses are flaring up, giving up to flatter me Humble the Poet, “Gutter”
Don’t be mistaken; the beards and turbans aren’t a gimmick. We’re not listening because we’re amazed to see a Sikh rapper. This isn’t the brown incarnation of Jin, the Chinese rapper who had a one-hit wonder and disappeared. Humble doesn’t make novelty jingles. Just poetic singles. The future will see Mandeep Sethi’s verse on “Gutter” immortalized, Sikh Knowledge’s production style commercialized, and Humble P’s observations on “Life of an Immigrant” footnoted in a University class on Diaspora culture. When Humble the Poet claims “I am Toronto”, he’s not only representing Toronto but a new consciousness in hip-hop unseen anywhere else: this is the true manifestation of diversity in hip hop. These streets speak Humble’s verses every drive I take down them. We had 00:05 and 00:04 before it. With the quality showcased on 00:03, whatever he’s counting down to is bound to be epic. And Humble. Download the album 00.03 free here http://humblethepoet.bandcamp.com/album/humble-the-poet-presents-0003
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