Beautiful Dreamer

K'naan Kills Gangsta Rap Dead, Throws Dance Party on Its Grave

Beautiful Dreamer

HARDCORE TROUBADOUR K’naan has earned his optimism, fucker.

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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. recommended


Comments (9) RSS

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Well done, I have to say, "good music is hard to come-by" these days. Thanks for sharing u'r views.
Posted by Guud D on March 4, 2009 at 4:41 PM · Report this
I attended K'naan's concert at Kennedy Center with my kids. I must say that I enjoyed the concert more than my kids.
Posted by goknaan on March 4, 2009 at 7:59 PM · Report this
I saw K'naan when he was touring with the Marleys. First impression: who is this eminem wanna be? But then... I started to listen what he was rapping about, and I realized he was from Somalia, and the ghetto stuff he was spitting was more real than anything I've heard in awhile. He had the whole crowd, maybe 600 people that had never heard of him before, singing along to his hooks. Half of his songs weren't really songs at all, but anthems.
Posted by Lawrence on March 5, 2009 at 12:08 AM · Report this
K'naan kills gangsta rap dead? That's not his goal at all.
You pretty much just took the whitest angle possible with this story.
Posted by Not Buying It on March 5, 2009 at 2:41 AM · Report this
I saw K'naan in Montreal years ago (2004! that's years ago? holy shit), when he was opening for a South African band in a small club. He blew everyone away and far surpassed the main act. One of the most surprising and greatest shows I've ever been to.
Posted by Duna on March 5, 2009 at 8:05 AM · Report this
There is a coming ground swell of actual urban poetry knocking on the doors of hip hop and rap. It's coming from artists of all colors and from places as far flung as Canada to Somalia. The time of the record company execs perversion of hip hop/rap ("gangsta" ect) for their own gain is hopefully coming to a close. We may actually get hip hop and rap back where it belongs and out of the hands of both the record companies and the petty criminals.
Posted by Cityperson on March 9, 2009 at 10:53 AM · Report this
He's pretty good for rapper that doesn't scare white people but I still prefer Public Enemy.
Posted by JF on March 10, 2009 at 9:21 AM · Report this
"Rapper that doesn't scare white people", JF? "Kill gangsta rap dead", David Schmader? I agree with Not Buying It that neither of these is his goal; they shouldn't be goals period.

K'naan's stories and his music are important and deserve to be listened to and raved about, but they in no way negate gangsta rap's own meanings, pleasures, or reasons for existence. One key reason, JF, being that the vast majority of its consumers are white suburban teenagers:……
Posted by jaynes on March 10, 2009 at 10:42 PM · Report this
As a HipHop head myself, K'naan is a dime a dozen - definitely not a 'gangsta' style rapper - this dude does dance remixes of his music - C'mon Son!!!!!!

Good for you, but I think you are molded and made for caucasion audiences that's why europe likes you. True Somalians and heads alike who know hiphop know that just cause a rapper like mos d is on your dick doesn't mean your dope, infact you can rhyme but u aint nothing i would ever listen to or look for cuz
Posted by aTRUEhiphophead on August 4, 2010 at 12:24 PM · Report this

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