Thursday, March 12, 2009

K'naan - Troubadour

Studio LP
Released February 24, 2009

K'naan comes to the game well-hyped. His label has positioned him as an anti-mainstream emcee, whose experience of growing up in the violent streets of Somalia pales the gangsta rap that America still obsesses over. While the fact that his face is plastered all over websites in iTunes ads makes it hard to buy into the fact that he is the answer to the mainstream, his lyricism should be enough to convince listeners that he is a talented, unique emcee. Still, though K'naan has creative control over what comes out of his mouth, listeners may feel a creeping suspicion that his label strong-armed him into using bland, radio-friendly beats.

People can come out and claim that K'naan's album is breaking ground insofar as bringing new sounds into the genre. The glaring problem is that the musical influences brought in on this album are already so tired. Did hip-hop really need Maroon 5's Adam Levine on the hook of "Bang Bang," which sounds more like a Robbie Williams track, or Kirk Hammet playing watery riffs ripped out of a radio-rock song from 2003? The story of K'naan is that he was rapping along to tapes of Rakim and Nas before he even knew how to speak English - it is hard to believe that, were K'naan to have creative control over his music, he would have taken the album in the direction that it went.

That is not to say that there are not highlights in terms of production. "America" brings to mind old-school dancehall beats and K'naan gets a little nostalgic before breaking into the Somali-sung hook. Reggae influences surface on other songs such as "Fire in Freetown." In fact, once you get past the hit-or-miss first half of the album, where it seems most of the more radio friendly songs are, the album's production settles down and stays very consistent in terms of quality.

Lyrically, K'naan holds his own. He is solid working with metaphors and spitting politically, but he sounds at his most comfortable when weaving a story. His history growing up in Somalia obviously provides a great deal of material to draw from. "Fatima" is about the object of affection of a young Somali who is taken away from him by a masked gunman. "Take a Minute" describes the emcee's personal development and hardships.

K'naan has absolutely improved since his debut. His presence on the mic, lyrically and stylistically, is bolder and sharper. He sometimes stumbles with lines that come off too cutesy, such as the hook on the closing track "People Like Me." In trying to steer himself away from the fakeness of gangsta posing, he ends up on the other end of the spectrum singing, "Heaven/Is there a chance that you could come down/And open doors to hurting/People like me." Despite this, it is important to realize that K'naan refuses pity from his listeners. His efforts boil down to the fact that he doesn't want to boast about his tought upbringing or complain about it, he merely wants to tell the stories he has to tell.

Beats: 6.5 Lyrics: 7.5 Overall Listen: 7
Lesson Learned: Mainstream pop is not the best place to mine inspiration from when you're trying to innovate.

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