The cliche goes that since artists have five or ten years to develop the songs on their debut, but only a year or two, mostly spent on the road, to develop their follow-up, the debut is generally the better album. Of course, we can all come up with any number of counterexamples. But even for those of us who loved K’naan’s debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher, this seemed like a plausible case. After all, the repetition of the I’m from the world’s most dangerous ‘hood (Mogadischu) theme does get wearying — I believe you! I believe you! That album gets over by the freshness of the music, which comes not from being at the cutting edge of beats (the man notes sardonically on the rerecorded “If Rap Gets Jealous” that he can’t afford to hire Kanye ‘cos if he did he wouldn’t be able to send any money home) but the unusual choice of samples (unusual if you’re not from East Africa, that is) and the old school variety 1970s rock guitar. And also by the fact that, well, being from Mogadischu does matter. It’s something we all need to hear about.
For the first 10 tracks Troubadour is indeed not as good as the debut, but for all that it’s much better then I feared going in. The first half of the album does repeat the same themes, with the only twist being the commitment to let us know that he isn’t complaining, he partying, this is what it means to party in the war zone. (Did someone accuse Dusty Foot of being no fun? Well, fuck ’em.) But then the last four tracks come, and I’ll be surprised if they are topped by any four songs in a row in 2009. All are slow to mid-tempo, in the Wyclef Jean/John Forte style where a soul inflected Caribbean/African track underlies a sometimes rapped, sometimes sung story-song. “Fire In Freetown” is built around the metaphor “like Fire In Freetown/I’m fueled by your gold mine” — and some stuff in an African language I can’t identify, let alone understand. “Take A Minute,” my favorite, is built over a slow piano hook (full orchestra in the background) with the theme “And any man who knows a thing knows, he knows not a damn, damn thing at all,” not to mention “the worst is over”. I mean, this is rap music, the music that was invented for the purpose of stylized bragging. “15 Minutes Away,” is “dedicated to anyone who’s ever waited for a money transfer,” and ends with K’naan saying mildly “Generosity is the key” twice as the track begins to fade out. And “People Like Me,” who turn out to be soldiers stationed in Iraq and suburban divorced housewives: that is, people who have lost love ones but don’t have anyone to sing about their loss. “People like me they speak politely/they don’t start no beef or piece of white meat.”
The generosity involved in finding commonality in these mainstream Americans is breathtaking. Find me someone else in hip hop, or any other current music, reaching out like that, and I’ll let them tell me about their hard lives as often as they want.
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