The UN projects that in 2009, a third of Somalia's total population will be dependent on humanitarian aid--this, in a country that has no central government, where the most viable economic vocation is piracy.
Having fled civil war in Mogadishu in 1991, the lyricist moved to Harlem and eventually embarked on a musical career in Toronto. With 2005's The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K'naan garnered critical acclaim in Canada and the UK (winning both a Juno and a BBC World Music Award), but was largely slept on stateside. Troubadour, his polished sophomore release, thumps hard with a vibrant blend of hip-hop, rock, reggae, and East African sounds.
On the album's lead-off track, "T.I.A (This is Africa)," K'naan lays a musical foundation--"around here we only bumping Fela Kuti, Tupac or Bob Marley, Lucky Dube"--stretching out the last syllables over a hard bass line and a sample of Marley's "Simmer Down." Despite a bevy of boldface guests, K'naan shines brightest, himself, on tracks "America," "I Come Prepared," and "Somalia." The latter is a brilliant glimpse into his country's harrowing issues, yet still prevails as a seemingly impossible anthem of optimism against all odds.
Later on, "Fire in Freetown" shifts the hip-hop flow into a sleepy love joint resting on a reggae rhythm accented by a Somali hook, jazzy horns, and crisp percussion. Troubadour is a superior album by a talented artist whose international potential is limitless. For someone who spent his formative years in "the only place worse than Kandahar" and raps and sings in his second language, this is quite an achievement, and offers a fresh narrative in global hip-hop.
And for those who don't already know, K'naan plays Neumos on March 10. If you haven't seen the best hip-hop video of the year yet, check it out below.