Thursday, March 7, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 492: K'Naan

I’m ready for spring to arrive.  It isn’t anything particularly bad about the weather lately, I’m just tired of wearing my winter coat and ready to just walk to work in a suit jacket.  I know what you’re thinking – I could probably do that now – but I have this rule that once I put the winter coat away for winter, it stays put away, and I’m not ready to risk it yet.

I’ve got a lot of dumb rules like that – keeps life interesting.

Disc 492 is… The Dusty Foot Philosopher
Artist: K’Naan

Year of Release:  2005

What’s up with the Cover?  Presumably this is an artistic depiction of a dusty foot philosopher.  This one’s feet would be less dusty if he road that camel instead of walking in front of it.  I don’t love this art but I like the inclusion of a boom box – nice touch.

How I Came To Know It:  I was a fan of K’Naan through the album that came after this one, “Troubadour” (reviewed back at Disc 347).  Recently I saw his third album for sale, but decided to take the opportunity to go backward into his catalogue rather than forward.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have the two albums, but I prefer “Troubadour.”

Rating:  2 stars.

On this record, K’Naan describes the dusty foot philosopher as “someone who lives in poverty, but in a dignified manner and…they talk about things that well-read people do but they’ve never read and they’ve never been on a plane but they can tell you what’s beyond the clouds.”  If you think you haven’t met someone like this then let me suggest you haven’t been listening closely enough; wisdom is all around us.

Unfortunately, “The Dusty Foot Philosopher” as an album is only half folksy common-sense insight.  The other half is the guy who thinks he’s the dusty foot philosopher who makes you wish you hadn’t listened so closely after all.

I’m an optimist by nature, so I prefer to err on the side of giving people – and records – a chance to wow me, so I kept this one on for an extra rotation before I decided what I thought.  The extra spin cycle definitely made me appreciate it more, but sadly not enough to lift it out of average.

Like “Troubadour,” K’Naan has a very good ear for adding African rhythms to modern hip hop song construction.  Sometimes world beats find themselves at odds with my Western-trained ear, the more so when they are awkwardly inserted into a song it is that much more noticeably worse.  The percussion on songs like “The African Way” fit in perfectly with K’Naan’s furiously fast, but precise rap delivery.  Add in lyrics about K’Naan’s first exposure to rap like “I remember I was seven/when rap came mysteriously and made me feel eleven” and the song completes its crossover appreciation loop.  Also worth noting that K’Naan’s love of rap goes to eleven; Spinal Tap would be proud.

Not so on “Hoobaale” which loses most of the western influences and sounds very traditionally African.  It isn’t a bad song on its own merits, but it is an odd fit on an album full of style fusion and knocks me a bit out of the mood when it comes on.

Overall I enjoy K’Naan’s rap delivery, but there are places on this record where he sounds too sing-songy.  This is particularly bad on the title track, which has a children’s song ear-worm quality that made me think it was taken from a Disney movie.  In other places he sounds a bit too much like Eminem, although props to K’Naan for rapping about worse situations than Marshall Mathers and still sounding more positive about life while doing it.

This album isn’t pure rap, it is more of a hip hop blend, meaning it relies a lot more heavily on melody and hook than simply rhyming.  K’Naan is a clever enough rhyme stylist that he doesn’t need the focus on hooks, but I like how he blends the two and he does so a hell of a lot better than the vacuous junk populating the charts these days.

In particular, “If Rap Gets Jealous,” which – although it sounds a little bit like the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” – is its own song, and just as catchy.  “If Rap Gets Jealous” also appeared on “Troubadour” in a more rocked up version, featuring Kirk Hammett.  At first I preferred the more rock version but the more I listened to this version the more I appreciated it, and I’d say they are equally good, and sufficiently different that I don’t begrudge them appearing on both records.

The album rambles a bit, and lacks the direction it needs.  There are eighteen tracks, which are way too many, and I think I’d upgrade the record to a solid three stars if he’d boiled it down to the best six.  In football, when you score a touchdown don’t overdo the celebration; act like you’ve been there before and you’re going to be back again.  Making records is the same; don’t act like it’s your last chance to make an album; you’ll make another.  Save the tracks for that and by the time you’re ready you’ll probably find that most of them aren’t worth including after all.

Overall, this is a fairly good record but I have a funny feeling that as years go by, I’ll be reaching for “Troubadour” the vast majority of the time I’m in the mood for K’Naan.  Musically, I like getting a little dust on my feet as much as the next guy but I still want to know where I’m going.

Best tracks:  What’s Hardcore?, If Rap Gets Jealous, In the Beginning, The African Way.

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