A new music scene has emerged in Canada, one that encompasses rap, hip hop, soul, folk, and rock, among other influences. K’naan, K-OS, Shad, and Drake are among the notable figures of this multi-faceted genre. Kae Sun, who was born in Ghana and moved to Toronto while in high school, fuses all of the aforementioned elements, but adds a uniquely African flavor to his songs, with a touch of reggae. The result is an engaging, intriguing album that stands out from other soul and hip hop releases. Lion on A Leash, Kae Sun’s debut full-length disc, became a success in Canada last year; November 9 marks its US premiere. His songwriting skills, vocals, and spare production style add up to an engaging debut.
Lion on A Leash defies categorization, as it integrates so many styles into each track. The lead song, “How Long,” emulates Bob Marley, in the spirit of “Get Up, Stand Up.” While Kae Sun may not demand direct action a la Marley, his lyrics suggest dissatisfaction with oppression, specifically in Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Darfur: “How long shall we wait, wait for justice to reign free?/How long shall we stand by, watch our children believing the lies?” he sings. The tempo accelerates toward the end, with Kae Sun adding an angry tinge to his voice to free the powerless from “Mental enslavement, incarceration, how long shall they cry?”
“Jungle Law” further explores funk, with the heavier beat driving the song. Kae Sun displays his rapping skills, thus bringing the hip hop vibe. But his singing voice centers the song, along with the live feel of the band. Wisely avoiding over-processed production, Kae Sun lets the pure instruments dominate, lending an organic feel to the track. “Free” prominently features Kae Sun’s rapping, but also his poetic lyrics. While he explores familiar themes of freedom–free speech, nonviolence, and unity–he ends on an intriguing line: “Here we are, wanting to be free/Not sure which way to go now.” Clearly he posits that there are no easy answers to the world’s problems, and this ambiguity communicates sincerity and honesty.
The title track recalls Marley as did “How Long,” but in acoustic form. Like “Redemption Song,” “Lion on A Leash” comes from a deeply personal and intimate place. Ultimately uplifting, the lyrics assure listeners that “And even when we fall, we rise and carry on/Through the highs and the lows/Where ‘eve the wind may blow.” The lyrics and solo guitar, along with Kae Sun’s restrained vocals, create a lovely, reflective tune.
In addition to Marley, some tracks recall Wyclef Jean in that they combine world music with folk elements. “Going the Distance” and “Blow at the Stars” best exemplify this technique, with the former song slightly reminiscent of “Gone ‘Til November.” However, both songs rock a bit harder than Jean, displaying Kae Sun’s interest in classic rock. But “On the Lookout” switches gears once more, featuring a sixties-era beat and Kae Sun’s enthusiastic vocals. Sounding like an outtake from Gnarls Barkley’s first album, it charms with its infectious beat and retro quality. Coming full circle, the album closes with his cover of Marley’s “Natural Mystic,” once again illustrating Kae Sun’s ability to communicate thoughtful lyrics with his simple yet emotional vocals.
Overall Lion on A Leash is an enjoyable listen and a truly original work from a rising artist. Kae Sun effectively blends various genres into one unique creation, and is a breath of fresh air on the hip hop scene. Pick up Lion on A Leash and discover an impressive talent with a very promising future.