The third full-length album from Somali-born, Toronto-based globalized hip-hopper K’naan operates under the looming shadow of his massive worldwide hit single, “Wavin’ Flag”. Practically ubiquitous in Canada and much of Europe for a good year or so following its use as Coca-Cola’s promotional theme for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, “Wavin’ Flag” had a lower profile in the U.S. much in the way that the event it was used to promote generally does. But in its low-key exoticism and anthemic simplicity, with chorus lyrics vocalizing the sort of populist hands-aloft motion that the music itself irresistibly encouraged, the song crystallized the cultural moment of hopeful optimism that a successful major sporting event held on the African continent represented.
Through various edits, versions and celebrity appearances, “Wavin’ Flag” was gradually watered down from K’naan’s original portrait of refugee solidarity into an expression of the sort of global chain-of-hands sentimentality that infects world music in the mainstream commercial sphere. This process reflected a trend also present on the album that the song was first released on, the artist’s sophomore effort Troubadour. Where K’naan’s acclaimed debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher synthesized the rhythms, melodies, and imagery of his Somali cultural heritage with the ghetto truth-telling of hip-hop into a fascinating and emotionally coherent hybrid, Troubadour saw those creative bonds straining and even breaking as adherence to contemporary pop music fashions pulled them apart.
This inexorable tension is alluded to (consciously or not) in the title of the new record, Country, God, or the Girl. The irreconcilable choice between nationalist loyalty, religious faith, and sexual desire and personal companionship presented from the get-go gives K’naan consistent pause. That he chooses the third option more often than the other two reflects a more general move towards the accepted standards of the corporate music culture that he unexpectedly found himself succeeding in. If this means more lyrics about the ups and downs of romantic love and less poignant rhymes about rocket launchers in the poverty-stricken Mogadishu streets, then that just may be the price of success.
Although prefaced as an unfortunate development, K’naan’s embrace of the love song is hardly a major drawback for his art. Official lead single “Hurt Me Tomorrow” is hamstrung by an overly unremarkable mid-tempo pop radio ballad structure, but K’naan’s sharp wit cuts through the clichés, sketching the miscommunications of a modern relationship with referential similes and persistent humorous procrastination. It’s his fierce intelligence as a lyrical predator that redeems his stylish poses. It’s precisely when the listener is lulled into underestimating him and letting down his guard that K’naan pounces. Still, there’s a lot of lulls in the course of Country, God, or the Girl, and the pounces are sometimes scarce after a reassuring slice of defiant afro-reggae rock crunch to begin with (“The Seed”). “Gold in Timbutku” is an awful thing, with a nursery melody and saccharine piano-tinkling instrumentation evoking little or nothing of the ageless capital of war-torn Mali.
Furthermore, the collaborations don’t contribute much to the overall package. “Is Anybody Out There?” features Nelly Furtado, another Canadian artist whose distinct multicultural influences have been compromised by commercial demands. The song grasps at comforting sentiments for the isolated and lonely, but comes across like an ad for Kids Help Phone. “Better” samples Coldplay’s “Lost!” to unmemorable effect; “Nothing to Lose” is the straightest rap track on the album, and it’s fully stolen from K’naan by seasoned MC Nas. The deluxe version of the album tosses in supplementary appearances by will.i.am, Mark Foster, and even Keith Richards (providing some dirty guitar backing for “Sleep When We Die”).
I don’t mean to suggest that K’naan is selfish as an artist, but he’s much more enjoyable when he isn’t obliged to share the spotlight. Witness him at work on the mic during the strutting, stuttering “Waiting Is a Drug”: “Shout out anybody named Mohamed / ‘Cause no lie, I know about a hundred.” He also seems to settle into his groove as the record wears on, especially when a multi-track closing burst pulls it away from pop trends and back into K’naan’s creative comfort zone.
Kicked off by the sailing island-dance glory of “The Sound of My Breaking Heart”, this appealing final chapter’s tour-de-force is “70 Excuses”. K’naan begins with a lightly charming enumeration of self-deprecating ironies (“I could’ve been richer / Were it not for the taxes / I could’ve been a scholar / Were it not for the classes”) before the song explodes into festive horns, African percussion, and infectious folk chants; in other words, into pure joy. The title references a kernel of Islamic hadith concerning community loyalty, and is referenced again in the solid track that follows, “Bulletproof Pride”, featuring a guest appearance by Bono and production redolent of the guest’s legendary band.
Chasing this song and ending the album proper is “The Wall”. This is vintage K’naan, melding North American hip-hop attitude, African pop melody and rhythms, and an anthemic impulse upon which his global following is now built. It’s quite consciously about expanding boundaries by removing barriers, and removing barriers to foster togetherness and hope. Nonetheless, it’s a curious thematic note to end Country, God, or the Girl on, particularly because the album’s commercial ambitions are so often an obstacle to K’naan’s vaunted freedom of expression.