The city of Ottawa had been buzzing the entire week leading up to Friday, December 17th. Posters were plastered everywhere; you couldn’t miss them on any lamppost or public bulletin board as you walked downtown. Smiley was coming to shut the city down.
Rising Toronto artist, Smiley, is the newest member of the OVO Sound roster. The 24-year-old Pelham Park native garnered an organic following in the Toronto scene due to his incredibly unique delivery. Think melodic whine beefed up with undeniable bars. He has been deemed “OVO’s new secret weapon” by Complex and FADER said he “ruled” back in 2018, so Ottawa was in for a treat to see the growing Canadian legend for only $35 at the Brass Monkey.
Smiley was the cherry on top, but local talent from the nation’s capital and Montreal still showed up for the first four sets of the evening continuing a trend for Cranium Arts Project shows.
The Cranium Arts Project has grown an incredibly natural foundation for their events by promoting the shit out of Ottawa talent. Their ability to bless the city with big name Ontario artists draws crowds into the hundreds, packing any venue from wall to wall. The Smiley show was no different.
When talking with Ottawa artists, conversations inevitably shift into trying to answer the question: “Where is the infrastructure to support local creatives?” This is where the Cranium Arts Project works its magic. By pulling what could be considered the highest of the lowkey artists from the region into the city, they build a hype for the show and then allow local acts to open and make their music heard by people who will build their core fanbases.
“When you step out in your own city to perform, you see people you never would have thought you’d see. But the majority of these people I’ve never seen before. I love performing in my city because it gives me the best opportunity to expand my audience,” Eazy Finesse said about the show, highlighting how much events like this mean to local talent.
This is what Ottawa needs. In the increasingly digital world, especially when considering music, artist to fan interaction is limited. COVID-19 has put live shows on an indefinite hiatus, but the Cranium Arts Project has persevered and given us some of the best entertainment the city has seen in the recent past.
Christos Greek opened the show with the help of BuddyWiTheSkillz. I was unfamiliar with either artist, but the vibe they brought to the stage was infectious, even in the sparsely filled room. Christos Greek stood tall in a brown peacoat and barrelled through his bars with a matter-of-fact cadence as Buddy stood beside him and belted out choruses with the same energy as if he was singing a rock ballad. All in all, these two left a footprint due to their energy and side by side, yin and yang stage presence.
TGETruth and The Grey Era took the stage next. I had never seen the group perform, but I had heard stories of their ability to turn the fuck up at the drop of the hat. And that is exactly what happened. The fabled group lived up to the hype surrounding their name.
TGETruth burst onto the stage, followed by TGEMarx, TGEStephy and TGEWatts. After that it was a no holds barred attack on the audience they made move from the back to the front to ensure optimal rowdiness for the next 20 minutes or so.
I was taken aback by the group’s confidence as it overflowed from each of the members, even after they came off stage. I cornered all four after their set and was able to ask them some questions about what they were bringing from Montreal to Ottawa.
“TGE brings energy every time. We have that sound where people love us. People love our energy and people love what we bring to the table. We bring something different, and people are attracted to that.” TGEStephy replied,
TGEWatts’ answer was a little blunter, “TGE just coming different. That’s all I gotta say. The music is gonna speak for itself.” Short and sweet. I fucking love it.
Eazy Finesse took the stage next, and she did it by storm. I feared that the energy would plummet after the TGE squad left the stage, but my fears were consoled with a colourful vibe that hit the stage. The burgeoning female MC grabbed a hold of the crowd by the throat and did not let go. There was no ignoring her presence or her skillset as she floated through her set with a lofty intensity that let you know she was having a blast but was doing the exact opposite of fucking around.
“I brought my confidence with me, I tried to bring everything that I could to bring the best outta my performance and it turned out a lot better than I thought it would.” Finesse said about her set, an undersell if I have ever heard one.
Finesse’s set was a rollercoaster. I flip flopped between toothy grins caused by the fun she looked like she was having, to stank faces brought on by her piercing lyrics. Eazy Finesse is a veteran of the Cranium stage, holding audiences captive all on her solo. She is a must watch talent to have on your radar coming out of Ottawa.
The final preliminary act was Lindasson who packed a one two punch so strong I was unsure if the night could go on. I missed Lindasson’s performance at the October Cranium event but heard rumblings that he had shut the place down. To say that I was excited is an understatement.
Lindasson’s set filled the room with the perfect energy to build the hype for the headliner. The crowd chanted along, word for word, in harmony to one of the city’s hottest up and coming artists. The mystique of Lindasson is something to behold on its own. His face was partially hidden by a hood/balaclava hybrid garment, which added to the somber yet radiant aura he emits. He makes the stage his home, demanding the attention of anyone looking in his direction making him an obvious fan favourite at Cranium events.
“I think it’s crazy. I think it’s very innovative and a good first step for the city because all we had before this was Bluesfest. And to see more festivals that are professional, is a great thing for the city. We need more shit like this in the city.” Lindasson said about the show.
And he’s absolutely right. To gather so many people into one room for the love of local music is a beautiful thing on its own, let alone watching the young artists take the stage and shine.
The evening came to a crescendo with Smiley taking the stage in front of a room of screaming fans. There was a break of about 30 minutes between Lindasson’s set and his and people began to grow restless.
“He’s not showing up” I heard some dude say to another in the bathroom.
“He ain’t even left Toronto I bet” the other replied.
I was nervous too, I’m not going to lie. I thought that Smiley had perhaps pulled into the same parking lot that I had two hours prior, saw the PetValu the venue was attached to, just like I had two hours prior, and turned the fuck around. Which would have been really shitty, but I don’t think I would have blamed the guy as I would have had a hard time dealing with the contrasting realities of having a song with Drake and playing a show in Ottawa at a bar in a strip mall…
A sense of relief washed over the crowd as host Ya Favourite Lightskin asked if we were finally ready for Smiley. We so were.
It was Smiley’s time now and he took over, ripping through his set like he was mad at it. I was rather unfamiliar with Smiley until hearing he had an upcoming show, so I started to do my homework. I had seen his No Jumper interview and had heard Akademiks call him a lyrical genius. I binged his albums and read every news story I could find on the artist people can’t get enough of.
And I must say, I didn’t get the hype. At first glance, I felt as if I was listening to a run of the mill artist who was trying to do something so different that people would have to like it, just because it was out of the ordinary. I thought his music sounded like a fad. Something that people would bandwagon on. Something that was here today but gone tomorrow.
But I was wrong, and Smiley proved that. He had the place jumping. His sound wasn’t whiny, it was just melodic. He floated on his beats, cruising through them with both aloofness and authority. The mellow beats his music lies upon were absorbed perfectly by the crowd as they danced, jumped and swayed while hanging off of every word the 24-year-old star sang.
His set was not a joke, which I had thought his music sounded like at first. He did not let his foot off the gas. Smiley stopped the set briefly only to bring out another rising Toronto artist, Duvy. The duo performed their song ‘Topic’, then Smiley left the stage to catch his breath and wipe himself down as Duvy performed one last track on his dolo. It felt special, watching the two young stars perform together. It gave me confidence that Toronto’s future is in good hands.
Smiley returned through his stage and rounded off his set with a handful of tracks from his 2021 album “Buy or Bye 2”, the sequel to his 2018 album. He capped the show off with his hit song “Over the Top”, that’s that track with the Drake feature I was talking about before. It was a beautiful climax to a set teeming with energy and love. The Toronto native barely had to sing, as the crowd's chants grew into screams. A circle opened. People dance battled, then trampled each other in a mosh. It was beautiful to see, something that could bring a tear to your eye. Nature was healing. After his set he thanked the crowd and made a B-line to his greenroom. I went back to try to weasel in for an interview, but he was gone, just as quick as he came.
It was a whirlwind show, but it was an amazing atmosphere. Putting on for the city was a vibe that hung heavily in the air at Brass Monkey. It was as if everyone there was connected through some weird way that wasn’t just music. Ottawa locals were supporting local artists, simple as that. Cranium Arts Festival had done it again with another show that brought the community together as well as grew it. Something that is incredibly necessary in a rising arts scene such as the one we are all immersed in here in Ottawa.
Written by John Balser