Americans think the world ends at the sands of the California shore and the boardwalk of Coney Island, especially when it comes to hip-hop. Rappers from outside the 50 states are thought of as good (for a foreign guy) at best and mocked at worst. But, and I know this may shock many of you, there’s actually a pretty big world out there beyond America’s borders. There are artists moving millions of albums in other countries, artists that have as much of an impact on their homelands as Eminem does on the U.S., but thanks …
DJBooth Album Review
So upon hearing that K’NAAN is “back” with a new EP, More Beautiful Than Silence, many will wonder what the Somalian emcee/singer’s been up to since the release of his 2009 album Troubadour. Not much, right? I mean, the man hadn’t released a single in nearly two years, and as we all know, if you’re not constantly feeding the media machine you might as well be dead. In fact though, K’NAAN’s been busy touring the world (in other countries but the U.S.), having his song Wavin’ Flag chosen for the 2010 World Cup (an event so large it makes the Super Bowl look like an elementary school spelling bee) and collaborating with artists from Damian Marley to British band Keane. But even the most globally minded of fans begin getting restless, and so the no-longer-quite-so-young emcee came through with an short project that shows just how far he’s come, and how much further he has to go.
He may be fluent in many other genres, but it’s K’NAAN’s hip-hop influences that are, first and foremost, the reason I’m writing about him on these pages, so there’s no better place to start than with Nothing to Lose, featuring the suddenly resurgent rap legend Nas. But even though it doesn’t get more “hip-hop” than having Nasir on your track, K’NAAN’s emcee work on Lose still seems to stand apart from normal rap conventions. There’s no talk of “who had the better verse?” or “Nas killed him on his own song” here – instead both emcees simply compliment each other. (“Compliment”, what a foreign word to hip-hop.) Closing track Coming to America, hold the Eddie Murphy jokes, features K’NAAN’s best work as a pure emcee, not only displaying his constant flair wordplay but even accelerating his usually mid-tempo flow to overdrive, hitting each sample with ease. K’NAAN may be much more than a rapper but make no mistake, the man can rap.
That juxtaposition between light and dark doesn’t always work so well, as on title track More Beautiful Than Silence. Opening as a piano ballad that doesn’t hesitate to soak in sentimentality – “there’s a light in your heart so let it be your guidance” – the track quickly switches to a bouncing, off-kilter affair that finds K’NAAN reminding us just how battle tested he is. The message: listen to your heart, especially if your heart tells you to talk lots of sh*t. Similarly wandering is the pouncing Is Anybody Out There, featuring vocal work from Nelly “what’s she been up to lately?” Furtado. Here it’s the production that fails to deliver – while he and Furtado were clearly aiming for an inspirational anthem what we’re left with is closer to an after school special, even with some of K’NAAN’s better narrative flows on the album. At his best K’NAAN manages to make a song that’s simultaneously uplifting and somber, a dichotomy that’s become his trademark, but when that combination doesn’t come together we’re left with a potentially delicious but ultimately not fully baked song.
We can’t make too much out of More Beautiful Than Silence – it is, after all, a five track EP. But it does speak to a very real issue facing K’NAAN: The good news is that the world (Literally the world) is now listening to K’NAAN, but the bad news is that the world is now listening to K’NAAN, and he knows it. The young Somalian is far from the first artist to have to figure out “their” sound while sweating under the spotlight, and by the sound of Silence he’s still figuring things out. But that’s a good thing – more questions than answers means more work, and more work means a better album when his next full-length project, whenever that may be, finally arrives.
Listen to More: K'NAAN Written by Nathan S.
First DJ Booth Appearance:
"Soobax ft. MWafrica & M-1" (2008)
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