There are some stories that have been told over and over again in pop music, revealing some inherent limitations to autobiographical lyrics. You fell in love with a girl? Yawn. You fell in love with a girl, who was later abducted at gunpoint by mercenaries? Tell me that story. Over blaring hip-hop beats.
K’Naan (née Keinan Abdi Warsame) was born in Mogadishu, Somalia and fled in 1991 as the country fell into civil war. The family settled in Toronto, where K’Naan learned English by phonetically transcribing rap lyrics. The artist got his break by confronting the UN High Commissioner on Refugees with protest poetry. His latest album, “Troubadour”, was released on 2009 and it’s his biggest to date. K’Naan gives it all he’s got, dropping an album of catchy songs, interesting arrangements, and fresh, compelling stories.
“Troubadour” runs through some of the conventions of a hip hop album (establishing street cred, drumming up some empathy) but we’re hearing a new angle. K’Naan gets the heart pumping with the intro “T.I.A” (This is Africa), driven by pounding percussion, electronic bleeps and zaps, and the repeated exclaimation “Hooray!” in lieu of a chorus, a word that sounds creepy and menacing in the context of the song. He establishes his street cred in this song and others, but by describing his early years growing up in what Foreign Policy Magazine describes as “The Most Dangerous Country on Earth”. “It’s no secret we know how to squeeze lead/ But the Pre-set is not to have to squeeze it,” he rhymes. Surviving childhood in Mogadishu during interminable civil war is the ultimate badass trump card.
“Troubadour” stays fresh by switching up styles and mixing in guest appearances, maintaining critical danceability throughout. Guest singer Adam Levine (Maroon 5) breaks some of the gravitas with the pure pop rush of “Bang Bang”. “ABC” recalls Washington DC’s Go-Go scene with heavy bass and horn samples supported by Chubb Rock’s commanding baritone. “Take a Minute” distances K’Naan from other hotheads of the genre, with slow piano chords under a pledge to emulate the high-mindedness of his family in tough times. “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”.
An early supporter, Mos Def joins in for “America” and we get to hear the troubadour rhyming in his first language, Somali, long enough for it to be cool, but not so long that it alienates.
K’Naan keeps emotions running high with heart-tugging rhymes and some seriously intense drum and string arrangements. The real showstopper is the song “Waving Flag”, which weaves childhood aspirations with world-weary socially conscious lyrics. “When I get older/ I will be stronger/ They’ll call me freedom/ Just like a waving flag.”
A song devoted to a childhood sweetheart “Fatima” tells the story of innocent love, ended when the titular heroine is abducted by gunmen. A delicate guitar riff is punctuated by French horns, and K’Naan proves his lyrical prowess in managing to find a rhyme for the American state of Connecticut (“delicate”, FYI).
The album employs almost every tool in the arsenal: An eclectic range of styles, some heavy production, big name guest stars, and high-drama lyrics. It makes for a compelling album that merits repeat listens and a slot on your party playlist. Originally, K’Naan gained a sizable following touring Canada with a small band, including an acoustic guitar player and a djembe player. I can’t help but wonder if he might benefit from showing a little more restraint with his production to keep the songs feeling more organic. I look forward to hearing future releases with a more stripped-down feel.
As the man says: “I still know how to get down, I still know how to vibe out.”