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.


Gorillaz: Plastic Beach

RIYL: Blur, mid-period OMD, Saturday morning cartoons

Damon Albarn is surely still scratching his head over the fact that he had to hide behind a crudely drawn character in order to sell a million records in the US, while the humanoid version of Albarn remains a cult act, be it with Blur or the Good, the Bad & the Queen, his project with the Clash’s Paul Simonon. Give him credit, then, for not capitalizing on this loophole by turning the Gorillaz into a Hannah Montana-style media juggernaut, churning out an album, plush doll, video game and TV show every 18 months. God knows, it must have been tempting. Sell millions of records, or don’t sell millions of records? Credibility is nice, but as David Cross pointed out, those outside the industry are stingy about accepting it as collateral.


Indeed, it’s been five years since Albarn has donned the ink and paper, and if the Gorillaz’ new album Plastic Beach is any indication, the anger that fueled 2005’s Demon Days has subsided. Unfortunately, Albarn’s energy level seems to have subsided as well. The album doesn’t shift gears much, opting for mid-tempo grooves that you’d expect from a Jack Johnson or a G. Love. “On Melancholy Hill” sounds like OMD circa The Pacific Age. This is not your older brother’s Gorillaz, though that’s not entirely a bad thing. The album may be completely lacking in bottom end – you’d have to go back 30 years to find tinnier drum tracks – but Albarn is still good for one unforgettable single, in this case the “Safety Dance”-ish “Stylo,” featuring a passionate vocal from Bobby Womack. De La Soul return to guest on the cutesy “Superfast Jellyfish,” and “To Binge,” a perky duet with Little Dragon, is one of the best pop songs Albarn’s written in years. He gets a bit carried away with the guest performers, though. Did he need Mos Def and Bobby Womack and De La Soul and Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon? (And that’s not even all of the guest performers.) Albarn ultimately minimizes his contributions to his own album.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect about Plastic Beach is its warmth, or lack thereof. This is one cold album, and perhaps that was Albarn’s point. If so, mission accomplished, but it could come at a huge price. His band is already artificial; when the music begins to feel the same way, discontent is sure to follow. There is much to admire about Plastic Beach, but it’s also one of the most emotionless albums you’ll hear this year. (Virgin 2010)

Gorillaz MySpace page
Click to buy Plastic Beach from Amazon


Online battle of the bands to determine spot at ACL festival

Sound and the Jury (S&J), a virtual battle of the bands, is returning for a third year, offering one lucky band the opportunity to perform on the Dell Stage at this year’s Austin City Limits Festival (ACL) in early October. Bands of all genres will have a chance to upload their music, have their fans vote and try and earn a spot on the stage alongside the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Sonic Youth, Phoenix, Mos Def and Passion Pit. Last year’s winner, The Steps, released and album this year and went on tour in support of it. ACL takes place October 2-4 in Austin, Texas.

Think your band has what it takes? Here are the official rules, and good luck!

How It Works
Round One is live now and bands can upload their music at The Dell Lounge to enter the competition. To stay in the game, bands must generate as many votes as possible to land them in the Top 100 by August 28 and then move on to the next round. From there, a combination of industry judges and fan-voting will narrow down the competition to just five finalists who will perform for a live audience in Austin at Antone’s on September 30. At the end of the multi-round, two-month campaign, one lucky and worthy band will earn a prize spot on the Dell Stage at the ACL Festival.

What’s at Stake
Each of the five finalists will receive $1,500 and a trip to Austin. The winning band will be listed as part of the official lineup and receive an opening slot on the Dell Stage at the ACL Festival. As an official ACL artist, the winner will get artist passes for the entire weekend with access to catering, the artist lounge, and everywhere else bands get to go! The winning band will also receive promotion on delllounge.com, a 15″ Dell Studio laptop, weekend hotel accommodations in Austin, and tickets for some friends the day of show.