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First Play: Maestro Fresh Wes, Coach Fresh

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Andrea Warner

Kids on a football field calling “hut” overtop an upbeat, jazzy piano line, and then a whistle blows in a bluesy guitar riff before it all fades out and thumping beat kicks in: these are the sounds of the opening 30 seconds of Coach Fresh, the first album in four years from “the godfather of Canadian hip-hop,” Maestro Fresh Wes.

It’s a brilliant and brief sonic map for what the listener is about to experience: a record that takes its central metaphor as a jumping-off point to explore everything from sports as culture, community, and entertainment, to leadership, legacy and fatherhood, as well as love and grief, systemic racism and oppression, the human and social costs of anti-black violence and survival.

Coach Fresh is streaming in the player to your left until its release on Nov. 17. For details on ordering the album, click here.

The album is also a testament to Maestro’s role as Canada’s hip-hop godfather, and the fact that he’s not just a groundbreaking legacy MVP, but very much still a major player in the game. “We all know Canada’s dope, but I made Canada fresher/ That’s why Canada calls me Canada’s national treasure,” Maestro declares on the album’s opening track, “Put ya Guard Up.” And on the title track, “Coach Fresh,” he ups the ante: “Rappers are lost, they’re searching for tomorrow/ Need a father figure to follow/ I be the one they wanna call, Coach Fresh!”

Throughout almost the entire first half of the album, Maestro, a.k.a. Wes Williams, couches every song in the sports aspect of his “Coach” persona, dropping the names of prominent sports figures and references to everything from football and hockey to basketball and boxing, including the Toronto Raptors’ new anthem-in-waiting, “Jurassic Park.”

Everything about “Mr. Evans” (feat. Ras Kass and Cyndi Cain) is perfect. From the emotionally turbulent backing vocal from Cyndi Cain to the use of Good Times’ deceased paternal character, James Evans, as a jumping-off point to talk about racism, representations of Black fatherhood in pop culture, oppression and the prison industrial complex, it’s a powerhouse track from beginning to end. “Ambition” and “Tuition” continue the sobering exploration of bigger issues, though there’s a disconnect in briefly denouncing violence against women in "Tuition" after invoking Mike Tyson multiple times as a sports hero figure in the record's opening tracks. The album is also loaded with great guests and producers, from Rich Kidd and Saukrates to Kool Keith and Faith Walker. Ivana Santilli's vocals are particularly affecting on the heartfelt King Reign tribute, "Tomorrow Never Promised."

Coach Fresh is almost a sports/rap concept album, but there are some incredible deviations from that central conceit, and yet somehow Williams ties the tracks back together over and over. This makes for a cohesive yet innovative record that is emotionally resonant and a worthy reminder that Williams is a master, nay, Maestro, at work.