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.


Maroon 5: Hands All Over

RIYL: Stevie Wonder, Jamiroquai, Train

Maroon-5-Hands-All-Over-album-cover-art[1] Just when you thought there wasn’t an errant molecule left to be polished off Maroon 5’s squeaky-clean pop-funk sound, along comes legendary producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange to add his layers of platinum gloss. Lange’s antiseptic stacks o’ tracks approach helped Def Leppard own the late ’80s (and made it acceptable for a snare drum to sound like a wet sack of potatoes being hit with a two-by-four in reverse), so when word got out that he was producing Hands All Over, eyebrows were raised in anticipation. What do you get when you cross Maroon 5 with the guy who produced world-beating hits for AC/DC, Bryan Adams, Shania Twain, and Nickelback?

The answer, as it turns out, isn’t appreciably different from previous Maroon 5 records – not in terms of sound, anyway. Hands All Over is a little more arid than the band’s earlier material, and the nipping and tucking applied to lead singer Adam Levine’s voice is more obvious than usual, but they’ve never been anyone’s idea of a gritty band; Lange’s production style is unmistakably slick, but he’s also smart enough to know there are only so many layers of gloss you can add before the underlying material disappears.

And it’s on that underlying material that Lange seems to have had the biggest influence. Though the band’s songwriting has never really been an issue, Hands All Over presents Maroon 5 at their most radio-ready; even the filler tracks, of which there are a few, sound as sleek and lean as obvious singles fodder like “Misery” and “Never Gonna Leave This Bed.” Much as he’s been guilty of fattening up the sounds of the bands he’s worked with, Lange is a remarkably savvy songwriter with a sharp ear for a song’s inessential bits, and it sounds like he took a judicious scalpel to each of Hands All Over‘s dozen cuts. The end result is as slick as it is hummable.

Of course, it’s also sheer product, but unapologetically so, and at least the product in question is one worth selling. If you’re the type of listener who looks for raw power in your music, Hands All Over is absolutely not for you, but if you’re just looking for a fresh batch of safe, hip-shaking pop to get you through your day – or if you have any kind of appreciation for that elusive sweet spot where airtight pop songcraft and unabashed commerce meet – this is one guilty pleasure you may not need to feel guilty about. (A&M/Octone 2010)

Maroon 5 MySpace page


Operation Aloha: Operation Aloha

They’re being called a supergroup, but Operation Aloha doesn’t carry the odor of a manager-brainstormed corporate rock merger, like, say, Damn Yankees; instead, it sounds like a bunch of guys dicking around between trips to the beach – which is appropriate, because that’s exactly how Operation Aloha came together. Sprung from a month-long vacation to a “treehouse compound” in Maui, Aloha loosely strings together contributions from a staggering 14-member crew whose members count Maroon 5, Phantom Planet, and Gomez among their respective day gigs, and the music is relaxed to a fault – though hooks occasionally poke through the mellow haze, for the most part, the album consists of perfectly pleasant sketches that sound like they might be on their way to becoming songs at some point. Not the type of record that’s going to grab you right away, in other words (or maybe not at all) – but given enough spins, it starts to feel awfully comfortable, like an old, patchouli-drenched poncho at a beachside campfire. It’s ultimately a little bit like a 21st-century version of the Traveling Wilburys – without the songs, mind you, but with more than enough charm to get by. (Operation Aloha 2009)

Operation Aloha MySpace page


Eric Hutchinson: Sounds Like This

Sometimes a record company, you know, steps in it. Because breaking new artists these days has become practically foreign to major labels, it sometimes takes a stroke of luck, or in the case of pop singer and songwriter Eric Hutchinson, the stroke of a buddy’s computer keyboard. Hutchinson, whose infectious, R&B-laced pop runs in the same musical circles as Gavin DeGraw and Maroon 5, was signed to Maverick Records before parent company Warner Brothers closed Maverick’s doors, leaving this talented dude with a sparkling product and no label to pimp it. But not to worry, he kept touring and then found overnight success when a high school buddy e-mailed a link to Eric’s music to celebrity gossip dude Perez Hilton. Just like that, Hutchinson went from no-name to peaking at #5 on the iTunes album chart, making him the highest charting unsigned act in the digital age. It’s no fluke, either. Sounds Like This, originally released on Hutchinson’s aptly titled Let’s Break Records, is just dripping with hooks, especially on the incredibly upbeat and soulful “You Don’t Have to Believe Me” and on “Rock & Roll,” the kind of track Jason Mraz wishes he could write. But even when Hutchinson brings down the volume, as he does on “Food Chain,” he can’t help but put you in a good mood. (Warner Bros./Let’s Break)

Eric Hutchinson MySpace Page