Underground Rapper of the Week: K’naan

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

K’naan is much more successful and well-known than most of the underground rappers profiled in this column, but still, in this writer’s opinion, not nearly successful and well-known enough. Based on the definition of “underground” stated above, therefore, K’naan definitely fits the bill. In a perfect world, this guy would be Top 40, while cats like Waka Flocka Flame would be completely unknown.

Born in Somalia, K’naan spent his pre-teen years surviving the Somali Civil War and other hardships in Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous and violent places on earth. When he was 13, his family fled the war-torn region and joined relatives in New York City, before moving to Canada, where K’naan learned English, partly by listening to Hip-Hop records. His birth name, Keinan, means “traveler” in the Somali language, and his life and music reflect that. His breakthrough album, 2005’s The Dusty Foot Philosopher, is a beautiful mix of varied influences, as well as K’naan’s own original style and voice. The album blends world music rhythms with hardcore, conscious Hip-Hop for a sound that works equally well in the dance club or in the headphones, whether you want to move your ass to it or carefully dissect its sharp, thoughtful lyricism.

Tracks like “Soobax” and “In the Beginning” showcase this versatility, with a rhythm that makes it almost impossible not to move coupled with lyrics that make you think, while other songs like “What’s Hardcore?” and the album’s title track bring that raw, conscious Hip-Hop lyricism right to your front door. On “What’s Hardcore?” he sums up his experience growing up in Mogadishu with lines like “Life is cheap here, but wisdom is free,” and “If I rhymed about home and got descriptive / I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit.” Despite avoiding gangsta rap cliches in favor of empirical realism, K’naan is not above some good old-fashioned battle rhymes, as evidenced on “The Dusty Foot Philosopher,” where he spits lines like “My mind is like your life, straight up, ’cause it’s made up” and “I’m not gonna sit here and whine like crushed grapes / My mind leaves you speechless like duct tape.”

K’naan’s follow-up album, 2009’s Troubadour, helped to bring his music to a wider audience with guest spots from high-profile artists like Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Mos Def and Chali 2Na, as well as the legendary Chubb Rock on “ABCs,” one of the album’s best songs. This album has a more polished, mainstream-friendly sound without sacrificing the traditional rhythms and conscious, philosophical lyricism that made K’naan great on his earlier works. With his latest EP, More Beautiful Than Silence, featuring guest spots from Nas and Nelly Furtado, K’naan continues to blow up, and few rappers alive deserve it more than he does. If you’ve been sleeping on K’naan, take a minute to listen to this immensely talented and hard-working artist.


50 Cent: Before I Self Destruct

50 Cent – nee Curtis Jackson – is one of the more brilliant entrepreneurs to come out of modern hip-hop, but as a rapper, the man has problems: He’s been locked in a sales slide since releasing his seven-times-platinum debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, in 2003, and these days, you’re more likely to see him in theaters (where he’s popped up in horrible movies like (“Righteous Kill”) or video games (such as “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”) than hear him on the radio. 50’s artistic confusion is reflected in Before I Self Destruct’s troubled birth: Originally slated for release in 2007, Destruct was bumped in favor of the roundly panned Curtis, then shoved all over Interscope’s schedule for months; no fewer than six singles from the album have been released since October of 2008, and tellingly, none of them have had half the impact of earlier hits like “In da Club” or “Candy Shop.” Whatever 50’s been doing to this album for the last two years, it hasn’t helped much: Whether he’s engaging in unintentional self-parody with ludicrous gangsta tracks or raging against seemingly everyone in his personal and business life, Self Destruct lacks any of the menacing, mush-mouthed charm that made him a star.

He’s clearly making a desperate effort to make up for embarrassing pop concessions like “Amusement Park,” but none of it works; the production (courtesy of top-shelf producers like Dr. Dre, Polow da Don, and Rockwilder) is as dull and played out as 50’s subject matter – his current single, “Baby By Me,” even samples his own “I Get Money.” Meanwhile, 50 himself strains to sound dangerous, but it’s hard to take tracks like “Death to My Enemies,” “Crime Wave,” and “Gangsta’s Delight” seriously coming from a guy who just debuted his first fragrance for men. His laconic flow has always been part of his appeal, but here, 50 Cent just sounds flabby and tired, and at 16 deeply uninspired tracks, Before I Self Destruct is a painfully long slog. Try to imagine the musical equivalent of being peed on in a rainstorm while an escaped mental patient with a speech impediment shouts at you, and you’ll come close to the experience. With a long list of movies in production and a contract-sealing greatest hits collection on the way, it could be some time before we hear new music from 50 Cent; hopefully, the time off gives him a chance to recharge his creative batteries. (Aftermath/Interscope 2009)

50 Cent MySpace page


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