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.


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


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