Review: A Segue From Staple Canadian Torchbearers, Kaytranada Owns His Sound On ‘99.9%’

Canadian artists have the juice right now. From Drake, The Weeknd, to newcomer Torey Lanez over the past seven years, Torontonians have carved out a space for dark, depressive, windy R&B and hip-hop sonics that have a chokehold on today’s airwaves.

But 330 miles northwest of the 6ix, in Canada’s second largest city, there has been an outlier to this movement: Kaytranada. The producer has been on the rise, and not so quietly cutting up DJ sets around the world. He comes bearing the Montreal, Quebec sound and the many throwback influences dwelling in his “old” 23-year-old soul. Which is why his entrance 99.9% is a refreshing turn from T.O-focused views of Canadian hip-hop/R&B culture. The debut project is a fusion of musical eras that Kaytra has crafted into a funk-driven soundscape all his own.

Louis Kevin Celestin was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and his family later moved to the City of Saints, where he was raised. At 14, he began DJing and at 15, producing. But it was genius reworks of beloved R&B and hip-hop records into feel-good, dance-friendly, bass-heavy productions that took him to the next level. Kaytranada’s Janet Jackson “If” remix, released on SoundCloud in 2012, lit the match earning him millions of listens, and he continued to grow the flame by dropping remixes to Teedra Moses’ “Be Your Girl,” Missy Elliott’s “Sock It to Me” and dozens more. Not to mention his singles and collaborations, including The Internet’s “Girl” from their Grammy-nominated Ego Death last year.

With online popularity, Kaytra was in high demand for shows and festivals. His live experience is not for standing and watching in oblivion. His mixes can move even the stiffest square. Last summer, on the last night of AfroPunk festival, the Red Stage headliner poured out sonic grooves into a sea of a few hundred festival goers who two-stepped, clapped and egging each other on in circles in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park. His transitions through hip-hop, house, funk and R&B records were seamless. With hip-hop DJs currently obsessed with trappin, the audience of mostly black and Latino millennials that night were sucked into a different time warp, as Kay brought the past, present and future together.

His first full-length release reflects all of these myriad tastes. 99.9% serves R&B, hip-hop, neo-soul and house in the unique way Kay hears and translates them. Across 15 tracks, his featured rappers and singers tread the fine lines of genre in their music as well, making these collabs golden. The album’s opener “Track Uno” is a jittery soulful instrumental prime for blending with 80s R&B dance hits (think Chaka Khan’s “Feel for You” or First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder”). The beauty of Kaytra’s productions is his tendency to break down the beat and rebuild it over several times. On the second track, we catch a soul-cleansing “Bus Ride” through a jazz and hip-hop neighborhood where the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla and The Roots live.

The first time we actually hear a voice is three tracks in on the dreamy “Got It Good.” Craig David, known for his hit “Feel Me In” 16 years ago, flows smoothly over the mid-tempo arrangement about spending it all on his woman now that his pockets have finally come all the way up. “Yeah you held me down when I had nothing/and that’s the reason I will spoil ya now that I can,” he assures her. The album is peppered with love/lust themes like this and otherwise. On one hand there’s the chilled groove “Together,” where AlunaGeorge sings of reconciliation as Goldlink raps speedily over the clappy beat. On the other, there’s Phonte, rapper and lead singer of the Foreign Exchange, blending his melodies on “One Too Many.” Here, he searches for contentment in his single life upon realizing he’s dated so many different kinds of women, yet he’s still not looking to settle down. “Broads my age talking marriage and babies and I’m like been there done it boss/The young girls wanna love me long time but then you gotta listen to ‘em talk,” he raps.

“Breakdance Lesson No.1” is a vintage b-boy and b-girl hip-hop record that Kay has fun pulling apart and reconstructing, while “Drive Me Crazy” is straight hip-hop banger. Vic Mensa drops cocky bars while still singing on the chorus. “Cause I done blew inside my mind since I first wrote a rhyme/Y’all all late, rappers be stuck in the booth, I’m All State/They’re impostors, steak and lobster/Surf my turf, better wear your chopper,” he warns. Tilting into ethereal rock territory, Kaytranada brings on more Canadian woes, Badbadnotgood, for “Weight Off.”

READ: Meet BadBadNotGood, The Jazz Quartet Creating Toronto’s New Musical Wave

For the groove-addicts, “Despite the Weather” is a jazz fusion trip with looping harmonies, while golden child Anderson .Paak’s rasp sends bodies into a sway or bop, (depending on what part of the beat grabs at you first) on “Glowed Up,” which starts off with boom and rhymes but later transitions into acoustic vibes and soulful singing. “Lite Spots” is a funky journey with a soulful female chanteuse sample—Kaytra and Shay Lia’s “Leave Me Alone” is an oldie-but-goodie released in 2014. “I gave you all I had/So crazy/How you wasted my time/How you reached that borderline,” Lia vents to her old love who clearly missed out. 

With 99.9%, Kaytranada colors where others are afraid to go too far outside of the black and white lines of normality. For that, he is a bit out of this world but the risk is worth the reward of finding an approach all his own. For other artists, that takes years to find. But like those hip-hop producers who stretched the limits and were a bit different, such as Timbaland, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, could Kay be next in the lineage of the shifting sounds in hip-hop? It’s a bit too early to tell. This debut informs us that maybe he will. Which begs this next and most important question: if this is 99.9%, what will Kaytra be like on 100?

Tags: 99.9%, Kaytranada