Release Date: Feb 24, 2009
Record label: A&M/Octone
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 rising-star rapper from Somalia (by way of Toronto) is as unlikely as an American president with Kenyan roots, so the buzz surrounding K’Naan’s star-studded new album is enough to make you want to toast the new world order. Not so fast, though. Troubadour isn’t the party script for the war-weary that K’Naan’s brilliant debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, succeeded at being.
When the name "Somalia" penetrates Western consciousness, its invocation is almost invariably horrific, saddening, and dire. We may still most readily associate the nation with the famously disastrous UN peacekeeping missions of the mid-90s (documented in the book and film Black Hawk Down), yet a cursory glance at headlines in 2009 yields news of malnutrition, piracy, and ominous support of Al-Qaeda, and we're reminded that strife, fighting, and famine have been facts of life in Somalia for decades. Somali-born rapper K'naan managed to flee the country in 1991, shortly after the outbreak of its still-ongoing civil war, yet there's no doubt he experienced more than enough violence and destitution in the 1980s under the totalitarian regime of president Siad Barre to last a lifetime.
Stories of hometown upbringings are a common refrain in rap music. But on Troubadour, Somalia-born K'naan's sophomore album, his tale gets too familiar. By the album's end, Somalia seems more a creative crutch than a place about which he feels compelled to speak. He raps about it so much that he sounds out of place when he touches on other subjects, the horrible relationship jam Fatima being a prime example.
Aside from Kirk Hammett's embarrassing contribution to the pop turd "If Rap Gets Jealous" and Adam Levine's cheese-balled "Bang Bang" play on the Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By," K'Naan's Troubadour, his second LP, pulls all that's right from Will.i.am's bag. The Toronto-by-way-of-Somalia rapper holds his own as a lyricist despite admitted shortcomings ("Probably get a Grammy without a grammar education, so fuck you school, and fuck you immigration"), "Fire in Freetown" more Wyclef Jean than Emmanuel Jal. He's also in the Fugees' league as a singer ("Take a Minute").