In "ABC's," the second track on the second album and first major-label release by K'Naan, the rapper portrays a world where kids learn the mechanics of handling a gun before they're taught the alphabet: "I'm from the most risky zone/No place is more shifty global/More pistols, Russian revolvers/We shootin' all that is normal." But this is no gangsta rapper exaggerating the thug life of the ghetto while growing up in the suburbs. Born Kanaan Warsame in Mogadishu, he and his mother fled the brutal civil war in Somalia in 1991, landing first in New York and finally in Ontario, Canada, where the rapper still lives.
If we accept Chuck D's famous statement that hip-hop is the CNN of the streets, global reportage is just as important as domestic, and K'Naan's portraits of war-torn Africa are vivid, deeply moving and even grimly funny at times. These dispatches wouldn't be nearly as powerful, though, if the artist wasn't such a fluid rapper, deftly spinning rhymes that have earned comparisons to American greats Mos Def and Talib Kweli over tracks that, like those of Kanye West, are rife with imaginative rhythms and bursting with arresting melodies (though K'Naan favors traditional African music over dusty soul classics and Daft Punk to provide his well-chosen samples).
In fact, the biggest knock "Troubadour" is the fact that K'Naan (or his American record company) doesn't rely enough on his talents, instead trotting out a thoroughly unnecessary series of cameos, including an embarrassing turn by Maroon 5 vocalist Adam Levine on "Bang Bang" and some superfluous wanking by Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett on "If Rap Gets Jealous." Because while the rapper can be undone at times by his own earnestness--"Nobody fat enough for lipo" in Africa, he notes--both the melodies and the heart-on-sleeve romance of winners such as "Fatima" and "Fire in Freetown" are ultimately undeniable.