In Canada, Kardinal Offishal's "Firestarter Vol. 1" was a huge event. To anyone north of the border, Kardi is a man who needs no introduction. For years he's been arguably the most important man in Toronto's hip-hop scene, which has been steadily blowing up since "Northern Touch". (And if you don't know "Northern Touch", shame on you.) Kardinal had been playing the role of both MC and producer since time, but he'd never released an album proper (there was "Eye and I" a couple of years ago, but that didn't quite cut it). So when word spread that Kardi had signed to MCA Records, it stunned everybody. A Canadian rap artist signed to a major label? Whaaaat? This does not happen. And by the time the album actually came out, people were still scratching their heads…
But when "Firestarter" did drop, it was a mixed blessing. T-dot cats took one look at the back of the CD and noticed that four of the 14 tracks (not including the "Intro") were reissues. Hmm. That's not a good sign. But it was alright because all four of them, "Husslin'", "Money Jane", U R Ghetto", and "On Wid da Show" were BANGERS in the first place, and based on the CRAZY lead single, "Bakardi Slang", the album looked like it would be the shit…
So was it? In short, yes and no. What's great about Kardi is that he is unabashedly reppin' Toronto. This man is not trying to sound American in order to cross over and become the Next Big Thing, he is doing his own shit. And he gets nuff respect for that, no question. He's got a very unique flow which is about one half T-dot and one half patois, and he is one of the wittiest, funniest, most charismatic voices I've heard in some time. The whole album has a very Jamaican vibe to it, and that is also a definite plus. But still, not all the material is as strong. Some tracks will have you breaking your neck and others just fall down flat. Let's take a look:
"Firestarter" begins with a thud. And by that I mean it has one of the weakest Intro's in years – some cat on some terrible phone leaving a message for Kardinal on his answering machine. Now I am by no means a fan of Intro's in the first place, but whether I like it or not, the shits are unavoidable these days, and often too damn long-winded for their own good. Such is the case here. I hate having to skip the opening track…
The first proper track is another story. "Bakardi Slang" is 100% HIP-HOP GENIUS. BIG TUNE! This is one of those tracks that just gets better every time. (Which to me is impressive considering how often it got played in Toronto this past summer.) The beat is TOUGH! Seriously, it's enough to bump your jeep down the street even if your gas tank is EMPTY. Kardi's raps on this track are strictly tellin cats how it is in Toronto - slang and all. Like Kardi said, "T-dot niggaz'll eat your food before yall cats say grace." Strap the headphones on tight for this one.
Next is "Mic T.H.U.G.S". No, it doesn't live up to "Bakardi Slang", but this is a decent track on its own merits. It's got a nice synth-piano beat, Kardi dropping names all over the place (everyone from Biggie to Choclair), and a little girl singing the hook. Oh by the way? That hook? It WILL get stuck in your head for a good long while, so don't try to fight it. I'm still humming it: "…was once a thug from around the way-ay-ay-ayyy…". Too bad the track drags on for about a minute-10 longer than it should. Oh well.
"Husslin" was another hit on Canadian airwaves, but way back in the summer of 2000. This is a re-issued track, but it is a very strong one. With its horn samples and West Indies vibe, it will make you want to get up out your seat. It's deep and multi-layered and catchier than you think at first. This one is gonna get its way under your skin, trust me.
"Ol' Time Killin'" is next. This is the type of track that just inevitably brings a smile to the listener's face. There's so much to like about it. You've got Kardinal, Wyo, IRS and Jully Black on vocals – all top notch. But the beat is what will truly impress. In fact, this is not just "a tight beat". This is beautiful MUSIC. Thick drums, xylophone vibes, an air horn blasting, toy explosion sounds (you know em when you hear em), and ILL samples on the hook? This track's got all that, and only someone with no ears could resist bumping along with it. This is really the only new track on the CD that can rival "Bakardi Slang" (I'm not counting "On Wid Da Show").
Next is "Money Jane" with Jully Black and dancehall star Sean Paul. Unfortunately, we don't get the original version of the track on "Firestarter". Instead, we get this remix. Beh. Still great vocals on everyone's part, but this new beat just sucks. Definitely check out the original version of this track – it's nice. Skip this lame remix.
Track 7 is "Man By Choice". This track is so out of place on the album. It's down-beat, it's humorless, and musically, it isn't all that interesting. But don't watch that because this track succeeds easily at what it tries to do: make you think. It's all about the "n" word, the people that use it, its implications, and its history. It's also a Black anthem, with Kardi urging his people to rise up and reclaim the land. And it's inspiring enough to move any color of person. There's too much deep shit on this one to quote here, so listen to it yourself and see if it doesn't open your mind just a little bit.
Unfortunately, after "Man By Choice", you could basically skip all the way to track 14 and not miss anything worth hearing. After 6 GREAT tracks, "Firestarter" takes a big dive, and quickly. Not that it's all entirely worthless between tracks 8 and 13, but there's probably nothing you'd replay or listen to twice. "Maxine" has a reggae vibe to it, but it bores. "U R Ghetto 2002" disses Bishop, the southern hack that straight ripped Kardi off last year, but it also bores. "Quest For Fire", "Powerfulll", "G Walkin'" and "Gotta Get It" (with Saukrates) are all throwaways that'll provide enough chuckles, but also enough yawns. Actually, I lied. Track 10, "Quest For Fire" is really just terrible. Kardi's flow is uncharacteristically boring, and the beat is just awful. SKIP this one at all costs.
On the other hand, "On Wid Da Show" is a certified Canadian rap classic not to be skipped. You can't help but get sucked into its vibe and be hypnotized. Put this on at your next party and watch the room light up. The album closes with "Go Ahead Den", which is very nice. The beat is FAT as hell and Kardinal comes with more energy than one man should really be allowed to have. A great album closer to be sure.
"Firestarter Vol. 1" is a mixed bag. Sure there's some boring bullshit on it, but there are also some perfect 10's to be found here (namely "Bakardi Slang", "Ol' Time Killin'" and "On Wid Da Show"), and some very well crafted tracks otherwise. Don't let the weak tracks sway you though, this one is definitely worth owning for the strong tracks alone. Because when Kardi is good, he is very VERY good. Let's hope on his next album, Kardinal Offishall can achieve the greatness that he shows he's capable of here. He could have a masterpiece on his hands if he does.
Music Vibes: 6 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: February 9, 2002