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K'Naan: Hip-Hop's New Pop 'Troubadour'

K'Naan performs at the All Points West Music and Arts Festival in 2008.
Andrew H. Walker
/
Getty Images
K'Naan performs at the All Points West Music and Arts Festival in 2008.

Somalia-born rapper K'Naan has an unusual background. He comes from a distinguished family — his father an intellectual, his grandfather a poet, his aunt a famed singer. He didn't get to Canada until he was 13, when he escaped Mogadishu with his mother and older brother. Inspired by an Eric B & Rakim CD mailed to him by his father (who was driving a cab in New York City), K'Naan was rapping phonetically before he had 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 Afropop. They're often driven by Ethiopian samples that are more swing than funk. And his second album, Troubadour, doesn't just have content — it's as catchy as the best works of Lil Wayne or T.I.

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Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.