Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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K'naan

  • The Dusty Foot Philosopher [iM Culture, 2008] A
  • Troubadour [A&M, 2009] A-
  • More Beautiful Than Silence [A&M/Octone EP, 2012] **
  • Country, God or the Girl [A&M/Octone, 2012] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Dusty Foot Philosopher [iM Culture, 2008]
Hip-hop is the most vital musical genre on the planet and Afropop has a glorious history. But African hip-hop is uneven, awkwardly derivative, hard to hear from the outside. So this Somalia-born Canadian is some kind of miracle worker. After rapping phonetically to CDs mailed to Mogadishu by his father, a Third World intellectual turned immigrant cabdriver, K'naan learned English from scratch when he finally escaped Mogadishu himself, and his skills are gigantic. What accent he has is subsumed in his high, sharp, unexpectedly comedic flow. He embellishes his simple beats with deft choruses and tunelets, and his African effects are savvy and unforced. The album opens with water music I'd tag as Mbuti, meaning forest-derived, although Somalia is desert--a sound I've always believed rappers should sample for the delight of it, and that he makes signify. Before you assume the guy is kinda soft, imagine the war-zone childhood described in "What's Hardcore?" He thinks you're soft, and will take you down if you get in his way. A

Troubadour [A&M, 2009]
What makes K'naan's hip-hop Somalian is less the authenticating stories he tells than the atmospheric samples he claims--after a snatch of Marley ska, the borrowed stuff is all Buda Musique swing from up Addis Ababa way. But lest you think him a do-gooders' rehab project like Emmanuel Jal or Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, be hereby informed that when this ambitious and optimistic fellow talks "song hook," he knows whereof he speaks--just as he does when he rhymes in the English he learned as a teenager, though I hope he outgrows "Somalia"'s -ation rhymes. Chubb Rock and Mos Def cameos are about it for his hip-hop cred, but Damian Marley-Adam Levine-Kirk Hammett is a pretty good pass at pop cred. Not that they guarantee sales. But after what K'naan has been through, bless him for trying--the ebullience he extracts from a life much tougher than North Americans can know is worthy of soukous, mbaqanga, the highlife of Ghana's most punishing inflationary spiral. Spiritually Afropop, rhythmically Ameripop--instead of hip-hop, maybe we should call it rap. He likes the word fine himself. A-

More Beautiful Than Silence [A&M/Octone EP, 2012]
Too much to prove, and neither Nelly Furtado nor Nas can help ("Nothing to Lose," "Coming to America") **

Country, God or the Girl [A&M/Octone, 2012]
Goes all-out pop as if pop meant sing-song catchy rather than complicated catchy, and only when he raps or someone else sings does the musicality intensify ("Nothing to Lose," "Is Anybody Out There") **

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