[4 March 2009]
On Saturday nights, there are two ways most local people get around Nairobi. First, there’s walking. It’s certainly the cheapest way to go and in a city that houses one of Africa’s biggest slums, it’s often the only viable option despite a major lack of sidewalks. Then, there is the matatu, a slightly more expensive, occasionally efficient, and almost always entertaining method of transport. A type of shared taxi, the matatu is a driver-owned 11-passenger van that, for less than a dollar, will transport you “in style” from place to place. Decked out with paint, photographs, and props, to try to describe the appearance of matatus is to truly realize the limits of words like “customized” and “blinged out”.
K’naan, the Somalian-born poet/rapper/singer, is a man that has ridden in more than a few matatu-like vehicles in his day. (Wikipedia tells me they are called caasi, xaajiqamsiin, or koostar in Somalia—thank you very much.) And while K’naan’s first album, the excellent Dusty Foot Philosopher, was certainly an anthem for the walkers, his latest work, Troubadour, is most definitely a soundtrack for the matatus.
The Dusty Foot Philosopher is a relatively understated hip-hop-infused folk album—more Citizen Cope than N.W.A.—that served as an introduction to the conscientious spoken word and creative rhyming skillz of a traveling poet—a troubadour—who has been to hell and back. It is a powerful work, overflowing with guilt, conflict, vitriol, and pessimism. Troubadour, on the other hand, shows us not a troubadour but a full-blown dancehall master with a seriously devilish sense of humor. It is loud, brash, and optimistic. K’naan’s message is still sobering and his honesty is as compelling as ever but his tone is far less cynical. In short, The Dusty Foot Philosopher was the work of a man sifting through some serious shit. Troubadour shows us an artist who, for the most part, just wants to have a party. And what a party it is.
“ABCs”, Troubadour‘s explosive second track, epitomizes K’naan’s new sonic approach. The song is a full-on party jam that, like a snake charmer, coaxes your head to nod and your toes to tap whether you like it or not. Thanks to an Ethiopiques-style backing sample and rapping from the Jamaican-born Chubb Rock, the song would sound perfect blaring from the windows of a hot pink Obama-themed matatu, bursting at the seams with Saturday night party-goers. Most of the tracks on The Dusty Foot Philosopher were stripped-down affairs, filled with sparse, acoustic instrumentation. “ABCs”, on the other hand, contains anthemic sounds, electrified and in-your-face with heavily layered vocal harmonies, horns, and percussive flare.
If “ABCs” shows K’naan’s new musical aesthetic, the funky “Dreamer” sums up Troubadour‘s fresh lyrical approach: “I’m a dreamer / But I ain’t the only one / Got problems / But we love to have fun / This is our world / From here to your hood / We’re alive man / It’s OK to feel good”. The song, reinforced by an old-school sample and lightning-quick rhymes, bounces and skips along, making it impossible not to cut loose on the dance floor.
On The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K’naan primarily set aside or understated his African musical influences in favor of a sound that reflected his love of classic American hip-hop. On Troubadour, his African influences are given free reign.
“Somalia”, an ode to the war-torn country from which K’naan fled at a boy, features a child-like chorus of voices that lends the song a tribal feel. For any other artist, this might come off as cheesy or forced. But, for K’naan, you know they are home. Like so many of the great hip-hop MCs that preceded him, K’naan makes you feel the pain of his upbringing: “So whacha know about pirates that terrorize the ocean / To never know a simple day without big commotion / It can’t be healthy just to live with such deep emotion / And when I try to sleep I see coffins closing”. Despite such harrowing ideas, K’naan’s newfound optism comes shining through towards the song’s conclusion: “Do you see why it’s amazing / When someone comes out of such a dire situation / And learns the English language / Just to share his observation.”
“Fire in Freetown” uses African folk melodies to perfection, making the song as infectious, earnest, and heartfelt as anything on The Dusty Foot Philosopher.
On “15 Minutes Away”, Ethiopiques-style horns give the song a 1970s West African soul jazz feel. The song is also home to some of K’naan’s best rapping. On The Dusty Foot Philosopher, his syncopated flow often sounded a bit too much like Eminem. On Troubadour, K’naan is finally starting to develop his own style, complete with the spoken word riffing that he’s been known for: “The worst thing is the waiting / Its spiritually draining / I guess I could repaint it / But don’t think I’m complaining / I’m in my small apartment / This month has been the hardest / I couldn’t afford some omelettes / I’m broke like an empty promise / Sometimes when I’m in a meeting / And everyone else is eating / I feel so awkward asking / So I pretend that I am fasting”.
If there is a weakness to Troubadour, it’s in the tracks where K’naan is joined by a celebrity guest. Then, he seems to abandon his own earthy style and, instead, veers into the artificial, the ostentatious, and the derivative. “Bang Bang”, featuring Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, is a vacuous attempt at radio-friendly bubblegum pop that sounds like a bad Maroon 5 demo. On The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K’naan hinted at his love of mid-‘90s riff rock, but on “If Rap Gets Jealous”, a reworking of a previously-released track of the same name, this adoration gets out of hand. The song, which features Metallica’s resident shredder Kirk Hammett, wanders way too far into Limp Trizkit territory.
Fortunately, even when the songs start to drown in their own melodrama, K’naan’s lyrics serve as an excellent lifeline.
Troubadour is thoroughly enjoyable and immediately accessible. It is not as emotionally powerful as its predecessor, but it does continue to show a talented artist that isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Fortunately for K’naan, his heart seems to be filled with more hope these days. And a definite need to party. That’s good news for the walkers and the matatu-riders.