K'naan: Troubadour

By: Trevor Pour

The Somalian-born and Canadian-rasied K'naan has been a breath of fresh air in the stagnant depths of hip-hop since his very first moment in the spotlight. From the groundbreaking Dusty Foot Philosopher to the current release, Troubadour (A&M/Octone), K'naan has found a way to simultaneously reject both mainstream and underground tiresome hip-hop clich├ęs. His brand of lyricism and musicianship focuses not on posturing or arrogance but on truth, respect and generosity. And although you're sure to discover Troubadour in the hip-hop racks of your corner record store, it contains much more than a mere flavor of reggae and alternative rock. But then, you can't expect a singular style when you incorporate the likes of Chubb Rock, Damian Marley, Adam Levine, Kirk Hammett, Mos Def, and Chali 2na.

It is surprising how many of my contacts have yet to hear K'naan. His sound, although not featured on mainstream radio as much as it could, exhibits the clean, crisp nature of expert production. I'm honestly yet to find a single person who doesn't love his music after their first listen; it impeccably combines reflective and thought-provoking poetry with beats so catchy you'll be humming them for a week. In fact, I challenge anyone to show me an artist as profoundly introspective and mature while remaining as lighthearted and joyful as K'naan. He acknowledges an honest appreciation for all those who aided him throughout his career. On the stunningly beautiful flagship track "Take A Minute," he professes, "I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations, creating medication out my own tribulations. Dear Africa, you helped me write this, by showing me to give is priceless."

Troubadour flows well, despite a relative disparity of style between tracks. The first half of the disc is arguably more pop-friendly, with the trio of "ABCs," "Bang Bang" and "If Rap Gets Jealous." The latter features Metallica axeman Kirk Hammett, who easily converts K'naan's rap musings into a distinctively hard-rock cut complete with a blistering guitar solo. As the album progresses, however, K'naan turns his attention towards his own history and development as an artist with thoughtful pieces including "Somalia" and "15 Minutes Away." And even in the face of his self-professed comparisons to The Beatles and calling himself "Africa's rap Bruce Lee," K'naan still manages to mainly focus on his humility, demonstrated by his eloquent admission on "I Come Prepared": "Baby girl, let me get all up in your earlobe/ and if you shut me down you can kill my ego/ which is my enemy/ makes you my amigo/ so either way you and I are button and needle."

On "Fatima," the emotional tale of K'naan's childhood love who lost her life to the violent reality of war, he points out that his story is not intended to inspire tears but instead to celebrate life. This vignette really strikes at the heart of what separates K'naan from his hip-hop brethren. He has a mature, reasoned approach to the horrors of his young life. And instead of using this troubled upbringing to justify a life of excesses or to boast of his machismo, he holds a deep respect for all those who helped him along his journey, and wants to inspire that same kindness in others. Now, is there other music with such a mindful, insightful outlook? Of course, but how much of it honestly has a chance at winning a Grammy while potentially roping in the fickle ears of the top-40 crowd? That particular union is what makes Troubadour such an intriguing album, in the realms of both music and American culture.

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[Published on: 6/17/09]

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