Monday, January 12, 2009

Artist to Watch: K'naan

A lot of people seem to be all about "underground" or "obscure" hip-hop, in some kind of bizarro bid for credibility tailor-made for Stuff White People Like. Guys like Immortal Technique or rappers of similar ilk get a lot of hype for being rap with a message. I'm cool with this for the most part-- I don't think rap necessarily needs to get Bono in and give lectures on accountability and crumbs from tables, but it's nice seeing guys who aren't on major labels get some play. In that vein, I'd like to point the world to K'naan.

First off, this dude's resume is unassailable. He was born on a street in Mogadishu named "The Lake of Blood," escaped to the United States in 1991 on the last commercial flight out of Somalia. He proceeded to teach himself English through copying the diction he heard on rap records, and traipsed the Canadian open mic scene for a while until glorious discovery. Sucka MCs got nothing on K'naan.

To get acquainted with his delivery and prowess, check The Dusty Foot Philosopher, his first LP that mixes equal parts afrobeat to shame 808s and a bizarre fusion of Eminem and Weezy vocal stylings. Admittedly, his music is pretty hard to get into. However, it's evident after the first few songs that, as he says, he had "poverty to feed [his] stress." He spends a lot of time taking shots at the mystique of hardcore gangsta permeating American rap. "What's Hardcore?" is a dark portrait of his hometown-- men "strapped with an AK, and they bloodthirsty" create a slum where "evening is a no-go, unless you wanna wear a bullet like a logo." "Is anyone scared of death here? Not in the least." The dude's flow is unstoppable-- "My Old Home" is essentially a continuous sentence with a shitload of nice rhymes.

But K'naan's also got an ear for the pop-rap single without quite stooping to "Whatever You Like" levels. "If Rap Gets Jealous" is a blazing indictment of poseur MCs. "My music needs no touchups... my mission is the world." All that strewn over poppy power chords and a rocky beat, and suddenly I'm listening to a happier Linkin Park. He's pretty down on rap, and that gets a little tiresome after a while, but he's genuinely frustrated that for whatever reason owning an Escalade and a semiautomatic seems to be the game standard for grit.

The key track on Philosopher is "In the Beginning," which is a very Wyclef-like foray into acoustic guitars and African choirs over thumping beats. The bridge is as emotionally urgent as any piece of music on your "For When I Need to Take On the World" playlist. "It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark... put up your fist if all you want is freedom." Right on.

Finally, the hidden track after "Until the Lion Learns to Speak" is a trip through chillout-jazz complete with saxophone and bluesy guitar-soloing. Give K'naan a listen, he just released another album entitled Troubadour-- expect him to blow up onto college radio and then get serious airplay in 2009.

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