Sunday, February 22, 2009

review: K'naan — "Troubadour"


K’naan Warsame fired his first gun at age eight. At 11, he demolished half his school after accidentally detonating a found hand grenade. The next year, the boy fled from gunmen and narrowly escaped with his life; his three best friends weren’t so lucky.

Growing up in a part of Mogadishu known as “the River of Blood,” named by the UN as “the worst place on earth,” his childhood bore witness to unimaginable horrors. K’naan’s mother walked through gunfire to the US Embassy daily to file for a visa for her family. He was 13 when they left in January 1991. Theirs was the last commercial flight out before the government collapsed and violence closed the airport.

K’naan and his family moved to New York City for a brief stay, then continued on to Toronto. He caught the attention that fueled his rise to international fame after performing a spoken word piece before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, criticizing the UN for their failed aid missions to Somalia.

Sophomore album Troubadour — a French word meaning “folk singer” — is a fitting follow-up to 2005 debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher. K’Naan truly acts as a voice for his region, following in the footsteps of his aunt Magool (one of Somalia’s most famous singers) and poet grandfather Haji Mohamed.

He doesn’t beat around bushes. There’s “mountain bike racing,” where kids wrap rusty barbed wire around bicycle tires and roll them down hills. He touches on the common practice of mixing cocaine and gunpowder to make “brown brown.”

Despite being signed to A&M/Octone Records, a subsidiary of “big four” label Universal, K’Naan doesn’t hesitate to be real in the only way he knows. His long-term goal isn’t a mansion or a clothing line, it’s to effect change in his East-African home. He makes the point that gangerstism isn’t something to brag about — for some, it’s a horrible fact of life.

Troubadour features some titanic guest appearances for the fresh new artist, including Mos Def, Chali 2NA, Chubb Rock, Damian Marley, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. Those artists and their varying genres are represented through the pure lyricism, The buffalo soldier ideals, pop vocal backings and symphonic instrumentation that saturate the album.

Explosive single “If Rap Gets Jealous” is the only carryover from K’naan’s debut album. But while the underlying theme is still unbelievable pain, the palpable angst and stream of consciousness from the first version fades after a complete rewrite of all but the first three lines of chorus. Fortunately the solos and guitar riffs from Metallica’s Hammett, intensifying the musicality of the song and pushing it beyond the purely hip-hop original composition, redeem the new recording

The crown-jewel track of the album is undoubtedly “Somalia,” a beautifully flowing and deceivingly upbeat ode to the horrors of his homeland and “to never know a single day without a big commotion.” The piano-backed diamond in the rough is “Take a Minute,” opening up with a time-old revelation: “any man who knows a thing/knows he knows not a damn damn thing at all.”

K’naan’s flow is consistently impeccable, and his melodious beats mask the pain of a childhood filled with closed coffins and blood-soaked streets. Don’t miss your chance to share it at Neumos on March 10.


  1. Anonymous said...

    great review! knaans def beings some fresh air into hiphop. theres a knaan remix by a seattle producer gnotes, whos in a flamenco hiphop collective Granada Doaba, check it out: