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Album Review: K’Naan

January 14, 2010

The Dusty Foot Philosopher Extended Edition (Reissue) – 2008

Like many, I was first introduced to K’Naan at a live show, when he was opening for Stephen and Damian Marley at Antone’s in 2006.  At that time I hadn’t heard of him, so before the show we tried in vain to find videos of K’Naan on YouTube to decide if we should look forward to his set or dread it.  (As all concert-goers have experienced at some point, support acts can sometimes be a real crapshoot.)  We didn’t find much in the way of K’Naan tunes online, and arrived at Antone’s with no expectations.

We ended up absolutely blown away.  K’Naan’s performance was the first, and one of the only, times I’ve felt like an opening act was playing a full-on, committed concert worth the price of admission on its own.  A newcomer to the American music scene at the time, K’Naan performed like a tried-and-true veteran and completely captivated the crowd.  His unique, ultra-conscious blend of hip-hop, rap, world music, and reggae was enthralling from the very first song, and by the end, the crowd was calling back his lyrics and holding up lighters as if they’d all come to see only him that night.  (Oh, but there was more…Stephen and Damian Marley put on an incredible show and all told, that still ranks as one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended to date.)

After the Antone’s show, I tried for a long while to hunt down a K’Naan album, never finding The Dusty Foot Philosopher for anything resembling a reasonable price.  Finally, nearly four years later, I was able to obtain the reissued version now that K’Naan is starting to rise to prominence.  Right here in Austin, he’s already played the ACL Music Festival and will appear on this weekend’s edition of Austin City Limits alongside Mos Def (who also played the festival this past year).

One of the best things about K’Naan is that he’s not afraid to experiment with untraditional sounds and beats, and on The Dusty Foot Philosopher you get indoctrinated to that immediately with the first track, “Wash It Down.”  Opening with the sounds of rhythmically splashing water, the flow of “Wash It Down” makes a hypnotic impression right up front.  (K’Naan also throws a lyrical shout-out to Kanye West, whose innovative production style influence is pretty clear throughout the album.)  “Wash It Down” is also the introduction to K’Naan’s other greatest asset – an unwavering honesty to delivering messages in his music.  The intensity of his passion is woven throughout the album, and at times, is raw in a way that is quite striking and memorable.

The Dusty Foot Philosopher runs the gamut of emotions: anger, inspiration, frustration, swagger, sadness, and most of all, the portrayal of the hard reality of Somalian life and the life of a refugee.  K’Naan explores these issues in the second track “Soobax” as well, turning out one of the best on the album.  The song pairs world beats with an urban dance sensibility while K’Naan alternates between English in the verses and raps in his native language for the choruses.  It’s inventive and catchy; like a club tune with a purpose.  The third track “What’s Hardcore” is a pretty straightforward rap, but the lyrics calling out American rappers on the common theme of growing up in violence are so outstanding that you immediately take notice – in fact it’s one of the few songs I remember distinctly from the concert nearly four years ago.  Lyrics like the ones below, delivered in a matter-of-fact style, make 50 Cent look practically privileged:

We begin our day by the way of the gun,
Rocket propelled grenades blow you away if you front,
We got no police, ambulance or fire fighters,
We start riots by burning car tires…

Find out what other tracks you should listen to and read the rest of my review after the jump!

Other must-listen tracks on The Dusty Foot Philosopher are the stone-cold “Smile,” the whistle-driven and playful “The Dusty Foot Philosopher,” and the tough and sobering “Strugglin.”  K’Naan’s ability to convey authenticity in a relatable way also makes the African-flavored tracks really special.   The inspirational “In The Beginning,” the hip-hop laden “The African Way,” and the chanted “Until The Lion Learns To Speak” are all standouts.

My only complaint about The Dusty Foot Philosopher is that, at 20 tracks, it is very, very long.  Several tracks (like “My Old Home” and “Boxing My Shadow”) are all about K’Naan’s forceful lyrical prowess, so they work on another level from the fully realized and produced “songs”.  And actually, I don’t really know why the two bonus tracks for the special reissue edition (“Blues For The Horn” and “Til We Get There”) appear at all.  They both sound like they were produced in the ‘90s; they’re sleek and shiny and they don’t fit on this album in the slightest.  Depending on how you like your music, you could edit The Dusty Foot Philosopher down a bit for your own mix, also leaving out the interstitial tracks that are less than one minute in length.

Overall, I would cast K’Naan and The Dusty Foot Philosopher in the same essential-listening category as any well-established artist who makes an album with a purpose.  There’s no denying K’Naan’s skill, talent, and star-power.  Combining all of that with his amazing live performances, well, he’s going to be huge very, very soon.

Check out K’Naan 1/16/2010 on Austin City Limits and pick up the extended edition of The Dusty Foot Philosopher on iTunes.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. seanningham permalink*
    January 14, 2010 6:14 pm

    K’Naan is one to watch, that’s for sure. I’m thinking his next albums are going to take the world by storm.

  2. January 15, 2010 6:45 pm

    Great review. I’ve only heard The Troubadour, so will have to check out this reissue. So exciting and refreshing to hear an artist who TRULY has something to say. I think K’Naan is going to be a household name once the World Cup starts – and he totally deserves it!

    Thanks for letting everyone know about his Austin City Limits episode this weekend! http://austincitylimits.org/3510-knaan-mos-def

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