“I’m looking forward to the day when MCs are rapping again,” Kardinal Offishall opines. “Right about now, it seems like people are really not paying attention to lyrics, which doesn’t make any sense to me in this hip-hop thing.” Kardinal Offishall is conscious of the state of the game, and his particular place in it. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Kardinal grew up in the West Indian waypoint of Toronto. His hometown, which he credits for reflecting “the cultural mosaic philosophy instead of the melting pot,” seeps into his music: broad-reaching, deep-running. Having outgrown the trappings of Canadian hip-hop, Kardinal is maturing into a more prominent role: North America’s next musical superstar.
Ironically, it’s questions about identity that have peppered Offishall’s career. Namely, surrounding the flavor of his tantalizing sonic brew: equal measures easy island riddim, cement-hardened cadence, teeth-rattling bassline, and vexing sing-song vocal. But how to describe this enticing blend to neophytes? Rap? Reggae? Dancehall? An intriguing hybrid? Labels don’t apply to Kardinal Offishall. Superlatives, however, fill in all the blanks: dope; unprecedented; the freshest thing you’ll hear this year. “My foundation is an MC, that’s what I consider myself,” Kardinal clarifies. “But at the same time, I can flip it up. I’m not the world’s greatest singer, but I can sing my ass off if I need to. I’m a lyricist, I’m a performer; I hate to sound corny, but I consider myself an entertainer.”
“I don’t feel that I’m ever the same way 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he expounds. “I go through a lot of different moods and I try to express that because I really feel my music is an extension of who I am. Some days we clubbin’, killin’ it in the club; then some days are like speeding on the highway wearing a blindfold and no hands on the wheel. But I don’t get caught up in how people classify me. To me it’s a blessing to be able to shift through the different genres because it keeps my mind working. As long as I deliver the illest music, and that I inspire the kids still in their basements making dope music. The kids who want to make hip-hop that big, beautiful star it was before.”
Speaking of big stars, Kardinal’s unique sonic imprint left an indelible impression on one heralded tastemaker: Akon. The Senegalese sensation had been tracing Kardinal’s trajectory for years. “Akon called me, saying he knew there was bubbling interest in me. He said, ‘Everywhere I’ve gone in the world, I’ve heard you on remixes, freestyles, different joints. And you’ve murdered everybody that you came in contact with. You destroy people.’ I told him, ‘That’s my job, to seek and destroy no matter who it is.’ And Akon’s not trying to tame that.”
Indeed, Kardinal’s debut album Not 4 Sale is a rash of untamed melodies. Even the title has significance. “I first had the idea for a T-shirt I’d made a few years ago; it read “Not 4 Sale” and had a bar code on it. My idea was something provocative— that went beyond gender, went beyond race, went beyond what type of music you’re into. And people would literally stop me on the street, telling me how dope the shirt was, how similarly they felt. The concept grew in my head based on that reaction. There’s energy you can’t buy— the essence of people that can’t be bought or bottled, and lives within them. That’s how I feel about myself—I can’t be bought. That’s why the relationship that Akon and I have is so dope: it’s based on mutual respect. He always loved my music and felt it should never change. He just wants to enhance what was already there and take it to the next level.”
Together, the dynamic duo kicks in the door with lead single “Dangerous,” produced by Vanguards. Akon’s satiny, sheet-creasing vocals waft above Kardinal’s fluid, flexible, flossing rhymes. Subject matter wends toward the prototypical temptress, whose siren song is too powerful to resist. “‘Dangerous’ is important,” notes Kardi, “because as much as I’ve been out there, this is my first bonafide hit as far as the world is concerned. Akon is one of the biggest entertainers in the world right now. For him to lend his energy and his star power to help bring my story out just feels like one of those things that’s meant to be.” More than mere introduction, “Dangerous” smacks of the symbiosis between Kon and Kardi. Their sounds, and their stances, mesh like the mechanized workings of a fine Swiss timepiece. “We have such a similar vibe and work ethic,” Kardinal reveals. “Kon allows me to be the loud, abrasive, energetic dude that I am. He allows me to spit my verses as I see fit, maybe throw in some of the patois if I need to; he never restrains me. He just shows me how and when to make it most effective.”
The synergy shows. Another surefire single comes from an unexpected source: a 40-year-old Jamaican jingle that was remade by pop act Blondie in 1980. “‘The Tide is High’” is an idea that I lived with for a few years, “Kardi recalls. “I wanted to deliver a single that you could play in the dirtiest dancehall club in a raw corner of Jamaica as well as a Hollywood socialite hangout. That’s what “The Tide is High” is, something people can relate to for a lot of different reasons.” Hmmm, one such reason? The knee-buckling, pulse-quickening hook sung by Caribbean queen Rihanna.
“Burnt” featuring Lindo P and produced by Ne-Yo affiliate Shae Taylor is a massive reggae partystarter. For Kardinal, retaining his native rhythms comes with a certain irony: “The thing about Jamaica is that while the vibe is there, the energy is there, you don’t have the opportunity. That’s why Toronto is important to me; there’s a hard West Indian population and we keep our culture close to our heart because it’s a truly multicultural city. I can preserve the dancehall and island vibe but not be limited because of my surroundings. We get the vibe of the West Indies and the outlets of North America.”
Turning Not 4 Sale off the palm-lined boulevards and onto the dimly-lit, scarcely trafficked back alleys is the gritty, thudding, “Set it Off” produced by Boi-1da and featuring volatile Virginians the Clipse. “Lyrics have really taken a back seat,” Kardi snorts. “That’s why we did another combo with the Clipse [the first being Kardi’s appearance on the Clipse’ “Grindin’” remix]. There’s a lot of MCs out there who talk that crack game, but nobody can talk that crack game like the Clipse can. I have no desire whatsoever to sell crack, but I’ll tell you what: whenever I listen them spit a verse, it puts my foot that much closer to the block.”
Elsewhere, “‘Go Home With You’ is a dark, digital masterpiece,” Kardinal asserts. Hmm, sounds intriguing. But what should a listener expect? Fire, for starters. T-Pain chimes in to assure that. But his contribution is sinister, seductive; “Go Home With You” is not interchangeable dancefloor fare. It’s hard, dichotomous: think one hand in the air swaying to the beat, the other surreptitiously reaching inside a jacket or at a waist. Kardinal deems it “revolutionary dance music. It’s sonically amazing and moves your spirit,” he maintains. “But no matter who you are —Martin Luther King or Malcolm X—revolutionaries have to dance too and unwind.” On this joint, Kardi checks in not only on the mic, but also behind the boards. “Making beats started out of necessity, really,” he chuckles. “We couldn’t afford to pay producers. I come from the era of pooling our money together to press our own 12-inches.” Fast forward to the present, and Kardinal Offishall still counts on those around him to complete the circle. “I truly believe you are who you surround yourself with,” he insists. “If you surround yourself with some world-class characters like T-Pain, it’s supposed to spill into your veins and you’re supposed to get that world-class music.”
In that same vein, look out also for “Do Me a Favor,” produced by Akon and featuring ubiquitous U.K. songstress Estelle. “‘Do Me a Favor’ is when I go back to just Jason, that dude who observes and tries to speak through the life of somebody still working that 9 to 5,” Kardi explains. “Cats out there hustling, legal or illegal, can really relate to that joint. A lot of times we as artists are so focused on maintaining our celebrity and that aura of stardom that we forget how to relate to the regular person. A lot of people look at our music for escapism, but I know as an artist it means that much more when I hear someone spit something that I actually went through and can understand.”
Well, all the ingredients are firmly in place. But they’ve always been there for Kardinal Offishall. What now matches the talent is the timing. “My ride has been so dope,” he reflects. “There’s a lot of artists that question: When is it gonna be my time? How come I haven’t blown the scene open yet? For me, it’s been a crazy interesting ride. I believe everything happens for a reason. I’ve been able to work with so many artists just based on a respect factor—anybody from Timbaland to Busta Rhymes—and I’ve been able to soak up all the jewels along the way. The time is now because I’ve seen a lot, learned a lot, and I can best serve my purpose. I like to inspire; there’s nobody that I know of that’s had this opportunity. It’s an amazing blessing, an amazing story that needs to be told. I’m just one dude from Toronto but I’m trying to create history with every line I spit.”