Reviews October 19, 2012
K'Naan: Country, God or the Girl
When I interviewed K'Naan about his third CD, two weeks before its release, I told him I thought it could be big--an album of consequence, a milestone. I also told him that such an endorsement from someone with tastes as off-beat as mine could be the kiss of death. But a number of listens later, I still believe. This album is a near-perfect crossing of rap and pop, rock and hip hop, in-your-face drama and gut-tickling humor. At its heart is a paradoxical innocence reflected in lullaby-soft melodies ("Gold in Timbuktu," "More Beautiful Than Silence") and earnest refrains about becoming a better person ("Better") and breaking down barriers that separate us from the things we love--country, god or the girl, as it were--("The Wall"). The album's big-name guests--Nelly Furtado, Nas, Bono, Keith Richards, will i am--come off as integral to the songs rather than market-driven window dressing--no mean feat in this era of calculated cross-marketing of music. Here, it feels as though the guests are the ones thrilled to collaborate with such a multi-talented maverick, rather than the reverse. These sixteen songs are almost startlingly different. But from the pumping, anthemic bravado of "The Seed" to the trippy, swinging closer "On The Other Side," they form a single, satisfying arc that finds places for the hard core pop of "Is Anybody Out There?" (a tear-jerker torch song to lonely youth) the swelling uplift of "Better" (best feel-good song of the year), the witty humor of "Hurt Me Tomorrow," the jaunty ecclecticism of "Waiting is a Drug," and even Rolling Stone's tinged rock on "Sleep When We Die." The sequencing is key, taking the listener through a deftly guided tour of uplift, despair, anger, reflection, and, at key moments, sheer joy. K'Naan's lyrics are a glorious mash-up of pop culture from Betty White to Nancy Kerrigan. He channels Dylan on the superbly trenchant "Bulletproof Pride," and raps with crisp, edgy, fiercely rhythmic flow on "Nothing to Lose." That song, featuring Nas, a rapper who inspired K'Naan early on, looks back on the early years in Somalia, when folks got confused and thought K'Naan was Nas, and Nas was Somalian. The two rappers have fun with this, but hammer home a serious message about desperation in another powerhouse chorus. K'Naan speculates that his penchant for march-like, on-the-beat choruses--so consistently powerful here--might have come from being raised on Somalian propaganda songs. But his gift for a killer hook melody has to come from God, not country or the girl. About "the girl," we get echoes of a failed romance throughout these songs, K'Naan's most personal album yet. But as the CD title implies, many of these songs can be taken on political, spiritual, or romantic terms. Hence their universal appeal, and hence my feeling that this is a major record, the most important one I've heard all year.