Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Polaris Round Up:: K'Naan Troubadour

As part of the Polaris Grand Jury, I think it's important to revisit each of the ten records in the hunt with an open mind and no preconceived notions. Prior disappointment and praise have to be left at the door as I give each of the ten nominees deserve as much time as I can, especially when you consider how much 20Gs could mean to any of them.

So, without further ado... here's my thoughts on K'Naan and his latest release, Troubadour.

When I really listen to K’naan’s follow up to Polaris nominated, The Dusty Foot Philopsher the things that help the record stand out to a bigger crowd will probably also be the things that swing the final vote against him. First off, the staggering diversity makes it harder to throw Troubadour into a classic genre and therefore it's easier to just like a few tracks than it is to digest the full affair.

It also means it's harder for the young musician to keep you listening. People that love the hip hop heavy anthems probably won't embrace the more spiritual efforts that pepper the back half of the record. When you consider the praise the LP has received, it's obvious that the young man is talented and he's grown since his last effort. His visions are more mature (and less angry) than those on his debut and his flow is much more confident, but a few small flaws stick out like errant threads from a favorite sweater.

Right off the bat, politically charged subject matter and up-tempo beats make Troubadour an easy record to champion for white, “I don’t like hip hop but I like this” music fans. His fantastic back story and diverse message help make him a media darling and interesting conversation piece – one that works for people ages 18-80 (but like gym teachers our old grandpas ain't supposed to rap) - but when it comes to hip hop heads, I’m not sure the Somalian born spitter gets much love. He’s realer than almost any of the artists talking about money, violence and girls these days, he reps his hood to the fullest and refuses to back down from any challenger. He’s exactly what an emcee should be, but how many people can relate to what he has to say and how many people into hip hop want to hear him say it?

I know the audience that embraces him shouldn’t really impact how K’Naan’s efforts are judged, but sadly it does. The same way people look down their noses at the inclusion of Metric on the Polaris list, if too many “normal” people like something, critics become skeptical and start over analyzing the results. To his credit, K’Naan does his best to grab you as Troubadour explodes out of the starting block with T.I.A, the Chubb Rock rocker ABCs (video) and Dreamer. The songs sound great, captivate you, and make you move , but unlike Usain Bolt, K’Naan fails to lengthen his stride during the middle third of the record and lets the pack catch up.

I truly believe Troubadour could have been something magical. The live instrumentation and spirited, unique tracks could have exposed the world to something we only get to see in film, but it was severely bogged because of too many cooks in the kitchen. I’m 100% into K’Naan giving us a glimpse of the life he led and how it’s changed now that he got a little shine. I just wish we only heard his story. It's hard to overlook the big names he calls on for help, especially when they contribute to the albums downfall. Whether it's Adam Levine singing a hook, Mos Def lazing his way through a verse, Charlie 2Na delivering the same rap he always does or Metallica’s Kirk Hammett grinding one of the records most infectious flows to a halt with his guitar wanking rip rock, the onslaught of cameos gives part of the record the TV awards special feel of forced collaborations.

He’s an engaging story teller and considering he learned English late in life, he’s a gifted word poet (“leave you on your side like a Kangol hat”, “illuminated it like kitchen foil”), but when the biggest names in music jump on board it takes away from the impact and takes away from his struggle and success. As refreshing as it is to hear him say he is better off not buying a Kanye crafted beat to save cash to send home and that maybe the rap world is jealous, the fact his album is laced with names that travel in the same circles really makes you wonder.

By the time he spins back into the more African influenced tracks like the inspiring Wavin’ Flag, the ghetto love story Fatima or Fire In Freetown, the record has lost a bit of steam and that’s probably the saddest part. With so many prep school hipsters pilfering African rhythms and sounds these days, the fact he’s actually grown up on the spiritual music and seen the things he’s seen gives K'Naan the unique opportunity to give people a real look at the darkness and help us realize people get out and rise to the top. It might not seem like much, but knowing he's able to escape and just make music, hang out with his friends, rap to girls and love life is an amazing idea. And that's where K'Naan's future lies. I know he was influenced by Bob Marley on this effort and I really think moving forward he has the chance to speak to the masses. He doesn’t gloss over the hardships he’s seen, but throughout it all he gives us a sense of hope and home.

I just don’t think this record accomplishes all it could. Not because his story isn’t incredible or worth hearing, it’s just that you have to see the world through his eyes as well as people that don’t know any more about Somalia than you do. One reviewer remarked, “I wish I left Troubadour feeling like I knew more about Somalia than I did going in, and I'm not entirely sure that's the case” and while that's probably valid, I still think you get to see part of that world you never would without stories like K’Naan’s. I just wish I was given the chance to experience K’naan’s world without the glitz and glam of all the people wanting to be a part of it.

So bottom line, where do I think K'Naan is going to end up in the voting? I wouldn't be surprised if Troubadour makes the Top 5, but can't see it pulling out the final nod at the end of the day. I'm not sure how many jurors will champion his effort but that being said, he certainly shows why he is one of the most talented entertainers in Canada and deserves the inclusion on the Short List.

MP3:: K'Naan - ABCs (ft. Chubb Rock)

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Posted at 8:15 AM by ack :: 1 comments

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At 11:41 AM, Blogger ak17 did sayeth:

Well said. This is pretty much exactly my reaction to the album: it could have been great, but is weighed down by guest stars. Thanks for taking the time to review these albums.


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