MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Rapper K'Naan has uncommon hip-hop roots. He was born in Mogadishu, Somalia and later immigrated to Canada. His second album, called "Troubadour," comes out this week. While K'Naan's background sets him apart from most rappers, our critic, Robert Christgau, thinks his music is as listenable as the friendliest commercial hip-hop.
ROBERT CHRISTGAU: K'Naan has an unusual background. He's from a distinguished family. His father an intellectual, his grandfather a poet, his aunt a famous singer. He didn't get to Canada until he was 13 in 1991, when he escaped Mogadishu with his mother and older brother. This story gives him some bragging rights. Here's a reminiscence from his first album, "The Dusty Foot Philosopher."
(Soundbite of song, "What's Hardcore?")
Mr. K'NAAN (Rapper): (Rapping) And each roadblock is set up by these gangsters. And different gangsters go by different standards. For example, the evening is a no go unless you want to wear a bullet like a logo. In the day you should never take the alley way. The only thing that validates you is the AK. They chew on chad, it's sort of like kokanees, and there ain't no police. So what's hardcore?
CHRISTGAU: Inspired by an Eric B. and Rakim CD mailed to him by his father, who was driving a cab in New York City, K'Naan was rapping phonetically before he left Somalia or learned English. But now that he's in North America, he raps his own way.
In keeping with his regional traditions, K'Naan's rhythms are more straightforward than those of American hip-hop or sub-Saharan Afro-pop. They're often driven by Ethiopian samples that are more swing than funk. He's not shy about singing. And almost every track on his second album, "Troubadour," centers around what he likes to call a songbook.
(Soundbite of song, "Dreamer (K'Naan)")
Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) Let alone in Mogadishu it's a mastered hard. If you bring the world hoods to a seminar, we from the only place worse than Kandahar, where that's kind of hard. But we still like to party in Mogadishu. Something good happens, we say Mashala. Something bad happens, que sera, sera.
I close my eyes and all I can see is you dancing with me. I'm a dreamer, but I ain't the only one got problems, but we love to have fun. This is our world, from here to your hood, we alive, man. It's okay to feel good.
CHRISTGAU: Modisha(ph), as K'Naan pronounces his home city, the only place worse than Kandahar. Now, that's kind of hard. As word play, pretty sharp, but that song is basically about fighting for your right to party.
K'Naan is admirably skillful and admirably shameless about counterbalancing the horrors of his childhood with celebratory, commercially ambitious music.
(Soundbite of song, "ABCs")
Unidentified People: (Rapping) They don't teach us the ABCs. We play on the hard concrete. All we got is life on the streets. All we got is life on the streets. They don't teach us the ABCs. We play on the hard concrete. All we got is life on the streets. All we got is life on the streets.
Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) Bundle up, I said, I am so cold. I glow like old guys who go bald. My flow got no front in the vocal. Your flow got no button, it's so old. I don't mean to sound like a showboat, but it's true, my persona's no joke. I stepped into some kind of portal. I'm legend and sometimes I'm noble.
CHRISTGAU: So, despite a few duff tracks toward the end, this album doesn't just have content, it's as catchy as the best Lil Wayne or TI. For all kinds of reasons, starting with it's Canadian, I'm not predicting "Troubadour" will turn K'Naan into a superstar in the insular, American hip-hop marketplace.
But he seems more than ready to follow his own path. Like most hip-hop CDs, this one is studded with cameos: Mos Def, Damien Marley, Adam Levine of Maroon 5. But the most surprising guest on this Somali-Canadian rap album is Kirk Hammett, who played guitar with a little band called Metallica. The song is called "If Rap Gets Jealous."
(Soundbite of song, "If Rap Gets Jealous")
NORRIS: The new album from K'Naan is called "Troubadour." Our reviewer, Robert Christgau, writes "The Consumer Guide to CDs" at msn.com.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.