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.


Herbie Hancock: The Imagine Project

RIYL: Santana’s Shaman and Supernatural, Anoushka  Shankar’s Breathing Underwater,  WOMAD label artists

On the surface, one might conclude that Herbie Hancock’s current release, The Imaging Project, is a Johnny-come-lately effort that builds on the model Carlos Santana rode to great success on Supernatural and Shaman.  That is to say, call in a diverse group of popular artists and have them record songs that infuse their styles with the dominant musical character of bandleader. Hancock and company certainly attempt that, but Mr. Hancock has grander designs other than just creating a hit record.  The Imagine Project is, according to Hancock, part of a global outreach strategy featuring musicians from various corners of the world to foster a kind of globalization that emphasizes mutual respect rather than a top-down cultural dominance emanating from U.S. to the rest of the world.  Does Hancock succeed in his ambitions?  At times he does, but at other times the record sounds like bland smooth jazz that never rises above level of innocuous background music for worker bees in office buildings.

The most interesting tracks (and ones that reach Hancock’s ambitions on this album) are tucked in the middle and end of the CD.  “The Song Goes On” featuring Chaka Khan and Wayne Shorter – and some blistering sitar playing by Anoushka Shankar – demonstrates what I think Hancock had in mind for this album (the same goes for “Tempo De Amor,” “La Tierra,” and “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus”). Alas, there are some real duds that take away from the potential grandness of the project.  “Tomorrow Never Knows” featuring Dave Matthews is as pointless of a cover as it is boring. “Imagine” gets bogged down in pomposity and relegates Jeff Beck to playing a solo that could have been done by any good musician with about a year’s worth of guitar lessons.  And only Pink saves “Don’t Give Up” from becoming a milquetoast cover of the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush original.

The Imagine Project is not a horrible record by any stretch, but it continually falls short on both fusing various musical styles and finding new wine from the old wineskins of classic songs. However, when it shines (as it does at times), the music does transcend geographic boarders to create a fusion that lives up to Hancock’s stated goal for this record.  (Hancock Records 2010)

Herbie Hancock’s website
Click to buy The Imagine Project from Amazon


Keane: Night Train

RIYL: a-ha, The Script, lily-white guys teaming up with rappers

Eight songs, 30 minutes. Actually seven songs, since the first track is more of an intro. And it comes a mere 20 months after their third album, Perfect Symmetry. Forgive us if this sounds overly suspicious, but it looks from here as if Keane is playing the contractual obligation game, giving their overlords at Universal something that technically qualifies as a full-length album so they can extricate themselves from their contract and move on to greener pastures. Otherwise, why the rush? Take an extra couple months, add two more songs, and put some meat on those bones. That would seem to be the wiser move, considering that their last two albums have done well chart-wise, but sold a fraction as many copies as their 2004 debut, Hopes and Fears. But nope, Keane clearly have places to be. Hmmm.


Whatever their reasons, the band’s lastest “full-length” effort, Night Train, shows the band itchy once again to explore new ground, bringing in rapper K’Naan on two tracks and Japanese MC Tigarah on another. As ridiculous as that might sound on paper, Kane+rapper actually works pretty well in execution, even if it’s all rather pointless. Yes, the back-and-forth between singer Tom Chaplin and K’Naan on “Stop for a Minute” as a certain opposites-attract charm to it, but the song would have worked just fine on its own. “Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got to Help Yourself)” fares much better, as Tigarah’s butterfly tenor complements the song’s feather-light pop groove.

The band has stated in interviews that making Under the Iron Sea was a miserable experience, yet the finest moments on Night Train recall that album. The fittingly titled “Back in Time” finds the band combining Gary Numan’s synth arsenal with Ultravox’s penchant for melodrama, while the gorgeous mid-tempo number “Your Love” showcases a rare vocal from pianist and principal songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley. It’s understandable that the band does not like being put in a box, but it’s not always a bad thing to play to your strengths; goodness knows more songs like “Back in Time” would eliminate the awkward inclusion of songs like the “Rocky”-riffing “Looking Back,” the other collaboration with K’Naan.

One wonders if the success of the Script, an Irish trio that is basically Keane with rhyme skillz, has gotten into their heads, and they feel the need to answer with some dope rhymes of their own. If so, their fears are unfounded; the Script will never write a song like “Is It Any Wonder?” or “The Lovers Are Losing,” and in any case, the inclusion of guest rappers stands a better chance of alienating their existing fan base than it does of expanding it. Still, give Keane credit for not wanting to stand still; if only their wanderlust had taken them in a more interesting direction than the guest rapper route. (Interscope 2010)

Keane MySpace page
Click to buy Night Train from Amazon


K’Naan: Troubadour

Talk about an album arriving at the right time: Troubadour’s leadoff single, “If Rap Gets Jealous,” has used a stomping beat, a Kirk Hammett cameo, and K’Naan’s wicked flow to create an iTunes phenomenon – just a few months after Kanye dipped his toe into synth-pop with 808s and Heartbreak, and a few weeks after Lil Wayne announced his Rebirth as a rock artist. But Troubadour really isn’t about trendy hybrids and gimmicky cameos, despite what the presence of the loathsome Adam Levine on “Bang Bang” would lead you to believe; it’s really a thrillingly eclectic, smartly arranged, finely layered collection of socially aware hip-hop whose influences are as diverse as its guest stars (Chubb Rock, Mos Def, and Chali 2na also make appearances). The songs are undeniably informed by K’Naan’s uncommonly peripatetic existence – he was raised in Somalia, fled to New York with his family, and is now based in Toronto – but his messages are as universal as they are uplifting, particularly on tracks like the Lennon-jacking “Dreamer” and brilliant “Wavin’ Flag.” Our current fascination with all things pan-cultural (M.I.A., “Slumdog Millionaire”) will surely fade in time – and it’s already brought us some horrible crap (the Pussycat Dolls’ cover of “Jai Ho”) – but any trend that boosts the fortunes of an artist this talented is one worth being thankful for. In what’s shaping up to be a renaissance year for hip-hop, Troubadour will likely go down as one of the genre’s best releases. (A&M/Octone 2009)

K’Naan MySpace page