Saturday, February 13, 2010

K'Naan - Troubador

In the rash of best-of lists at the end of each year, I always discover something that should have made my own best-of list. This is that album this year.

K'naan is a Somalian-Canadian who emigrated first to New York, then to Toronto when he was a teenager. He didn't speak english when he moved here, but he already had a great love for American hip hop. He raps about his life in Mogadishu, and about the difficulty of leaving a warzone with friends and family still in danger. His biography is very important to his image as a world-wise, self-aware rising star. This would be a fascinating story even if the music weren't so good.

Troubador is a kick in the pants - it's the first new hip hop album i've enjoyed since Tim Fite in 2007, and I've been playing it nonstop. It's ruining the monopoly that indie rock and alt-country have had on my ipod for a long time. The first song I heard was Wavin' Flag, and it's a fantastic song - uplifting and heartfelt like no other hip hop song i've ever heard - but it doesn't begin to showcase K'naan's rhymes. If I had to compare K'naan's style it would be somewhere between Kanye West and Eminem - he truly learned english by listening to hip hop, so he's assimilated perfectly the standard rap cadences, pronunciations, and interior rhymes of the most inventive American stars. The difference is, when he reps the hood he grew up in, it was Mogadishu. Not that suburban Chicago didn't have it's trials and tribulations.

Sometimes, K'naan gets caught up too much in comparing his relatively unassailable background to those of other rappers. He's obviously earned his swagger, and as with almost every hip hop album, it gets tiring to listen to him brag about gun crimes, and offer to take other rappers on a "field trip" to the streets where he was raised. But these moments are overshadowed by songs like Take a Minute where he credits his strength to his mother, to Africa, to the generosity of those who've taught him that if one truly knows anything, it's that he knows "not a damn, damn thing at all."

There are, of course, lighter moments as well, like 15 Minutes Away - where he raps about how much he loves getting money transfers from Western Union, Bang Bang - probably his best rhyme showcase, where he spins a dizzying tale about another dangerous experience in his life, trying a bed a woman who was just too beautiful, and If Rap Gets Jealous - featuring guitar work from Metallica's Kirk Hammet. These moments provide a welcome respite from the potentially depressing subject matter of some of the rest of the album, and the overall feeling is not only uplifiting, it's fun. K'naan grabbed my attention with his biography, but he's really backed it up with his music.

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