Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A boy grows up in Mogadishu, Somalia, during a civil war so brutal the United Nations declares the country the most dangerous in the world. This is no ordinary boy. He’s the grandson of an acclaimed poet and the nephew of a famous singer, so even in the midst of crushing violence he has music in his soul. As the situation in Somalia deteriorates from bad to hellish, the boy and his mother manage to escape and are granted U.S. visas. Once on American shores the boy …
DJBooth Album Review
That boy’s name is K’naan, and he’s emerged from the darkest corners of war to become a rising star in the music industry, a status that should be cemented with the release of his sophomore album Troubadour. In some ways K’naan’s music is a return to the roots of hip-hop - before it was diamond coated and Patron lubricated hip-hop was a language of poverty - but in other, more crucial ways, it’s also a prophecy of what’s to come. With artists like Pitbull, Akon and M.I.A. dominating the charts, hip-hop’s boundaries are stretching far beyond America, and they’re bringing the sounds of their eclectic backgrounds with them. In this way Troubadour isn’t just a hip-hop album, it’s a small portal into hip-hop’s global future.
Troubadour’s wandering sound often has as much in common with hip-hop as a square dance party in a Iowa retirement home, but let’s start with one simple fact: K’naan can f**king rap. We’ll start with ABCs, a track built on mid-90’s synths and a chanted chorus, the perfect environment for a verse from old-school hero Chubb Rock. For his part K’naan delivers a flow that’s equal parts political and street, dropping lines like “we fight with guns or utensils, so poor nothing’s confidential” with the rhythmic swagger of a dancehall rapper. It’s an impressive vocal balancing act, but for pure flow it’s hard to top I Come Prepared. On Prepared K’naan fully flexes his creative muscle, chopping and reconfiguring words into unexpected and sometimes comedic combinations: “How many immigrants are there in this here sedan, and is anyone carrying any contraband?” As strange as it is to compare a strictly sober Somalian to a notorious white guy from Detroit, it’s this kind of gallows humor and linguistic acrobatics that makes Eminem the closest comparison for K’naan’s rhyme style (see the Stan-esque People Like Me for further confirmation). K’naan has a lot of mics to lift before he can begin to match Em’s lyrical strength, but for now he’s an interesting addition to the “most innovative rapper alive” conversation.
Before we completely leave the comfortable confines of hip-hop for more distant shores we’ll take a brief but important stop in America, a track featuring K’naan rapping (and I use “rapping” only in the loosest sense) in Arabic. It’s a fascinating reminder that rap was invented by Americans like sex was invented by Americans; countless cultures do it, we just figured out how to turn it into a lucrative business. Hell, even another disappointing guest verse from Mos Def can’t dull America’s energy. But it would be a mistake to continue to talk about K’naan solely in relationship to hip-hop. Like many international artists he’s equally comfortable draping himself in pop, rock, reggae and genres yet unnamed. Just take the aptly names If Rap Gets Jealous, a full-out hard rock banger featuring Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, or Fire In Freetown, a reggae infused jam with echoes of Bob Marley’s gift to make struggle sound beautiful. For money my favorite of these songs is Fatima, a sparkling ode to a love lost a long, long time ago. Fatima’s eclectic narrative style is captivatingly reminiscent of Wyclef at his best, or even Paul Simon. And yes, I am the only hip-hop writer in America with big enough balls to admit he likes Paul Simon. What!?
On second thought, maybe these tracks are hip-hop. Hip-hop has thrived and spread from the Bronx to Compton to Mogadishu precisely because it’s so malleable, so capable of incorporating that can be put on a turntable. So while the ultimate promise of K’naan’s musical capabilities are far from fulfilled on Troubadour, he’s subtly but surely changing the face of hip-hop. And make no mistake, if hip-hop is to survive, like every organism, it must adapt to its constantly changing environment.
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 01/30/09
First DJ Booth Appearance:
"Soobax ft. MWafrica & M-1" (2008)
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