Like all potentially game-changing MCs, K'naan comes with an irresistible backstory. Born in Mogadishu, K'naan grew up in the thick of Somalia's civil war until his father—a refugee working as a cabbie in New York City—sent home enough money to fund his family's escape. In a fittingly dramatic flourish, K'naan and his kin made it onto the last commercial flight out of the country, landing first in New York before relocating to Toronto, where K'naan began learning English with help of hiphop, rapping along phonetically to Rakim and Nas records and eventually attaining a highly musical fluency of his own.
This musical fluency and dramatic backstory were mined to astonishing effect on The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K'naan's 2005 debut, which won a Juno Award (the Canadian Grammy) for best rap recording and enjoyed a splashy U.S. rerelease last year. Over tracks that pillaged the globe for delights—African drums, rock guitars, sampled beats, and music from all over tarnation—K'naan laid out his one-of-a-kind worldview. "Let me tell you straightforward: I'm poor/Been in prison and survived a war/I come from the most dangerous city in the universe/You're likely to get shot at birth" goes the stake-claiming "If Rap Gets Jealous," with the classic braggadocio of the latter lines as important as the simple horror of the first. For K'naan, surviving is just the beginning, and what you make of your past—art, music, sassy brags about your bad- assery—is what matters.
As it is, the bragging is kept to an almost unprecedented minimum, with K'naan opting to present his past with succinct statements of fact ("We got no police, ambulance, or firefighters/We start riots by burning car tires") and cryptic witticisms ("If I rhymed about home and got descriptive/I'd make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit"). Both lines come from "What's Hardcore?" K'naan's most explicit challenge to glorified gangsta-ism, the lyrics of which lackadaisically present the facts of his Somalian life, which accumulate to expose—tacitly but undeniably—the American gangsta lifestyle as the dead-end drama queenery that it really is.
Considering the honorability of the endeavor, it's tempting to overplay K'naan's role as Gangsta Slaya (see subheadline above). But ultimately, K'naan's backstory matters not so much for revealing gangsta-ism as a game for losers (essentially Dungeons & Dragons meets Russian roulette), but for the credibility it gives him as a writer and MC. At this troubled stage of history, there are few entertainers who could sell me a line like "It's okay to feel good" without risking a punch in the face; a witty, smart-as-shit Somalian-refugee rapper is one of them.
The hard-earned optimism at the center of K'naan's mission extends to his music, which is indiscriminate in its willingness to please. Taking the "hard enough to be soft" pose to a new level, K'naan places even his most harrowing lyrics over ravishingly pleasurable music, incorporating beautiful sounds from wherever he can find them. When he's not rapping—in a stretchy nasal treble that recalls nothing so much as Slim Shady, Eminem's ebulliently malicious alter ego, with whom K'naan has literally nothing else in common—he's singing, opening up his strong, multifaceted voice over honest-to-God songs with lush hooks and home-brewed pop choruses. (Such musical promiscuity has led some to classify K'naan outside of hiphop—this, however, is bullshit. If hiphop can expand to include, say, whatever the hell ODB and Kelis's "Got Your Money" is, it can make room for K'naan's music, which is steeped in rap even when it's coming on like Afropop.)
Last week brought the release of Troubadour, K'naan's second album, released by A&M/Octone Records and featuring a bevy of high-profile guest stars, including Mos Def, Maroon 5's Adam Levine, Chubb Rock, and Metallica's Kirk Hammett, who adds some metal-guitar oomph to a remake of the aforementioned "If Rap Gets Jealous," here presented with new (inferior) lyrics and a radio-ready gloss. Elsewhere on the album, K'naan expands on the world-music-fusing, pop-leaning hiphop that made his debut a word-of-mouth classic, with a handful of songs—"ABCs," "Somalia," and especially the Lennon-saluting "Dreamer"—summing up the best of what he has to offer (brainy engagement, mile-wide hooks) perfectly. Time will tell if Troubadour jells into something as significant as The Dusty Foot Philosopher; for now, it's another fully engaging offering from an emerging artist with the goods to take over the world.