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K’naan Troubadour – Champion Edition Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

An album of a high standard, with much more to offer than the hit Wavin’ Flag.

Mike Diver 2010

Somalia-born rapper K’naan – real name Keinan Abdi Warsame – clearly doesn’t care much for critical credibility. He might have lived through a very real hell before fleeing his war-torn homeland as a teenager, eventually settling in Canada, but recent movements in his music career have included collaborations with Adam Levine of abysmal stateside soft-rockers Maroon 5 and British piano-indie lightweights Keane, and his Wavin’ Flag track has been adopted by a Certain Soft Drink Brand as their official World Cup 2010 song. On paper, this sounds like a whole other kind of hell.

But K’naan, to his credit, isn’t bothered by any sell-out-style accusations: “I wasn’t ever looking for any street cred,” he says on opener T.I.A., before referring to the daily risks of his childhood: “But these streets taught me to be street safe”. ABC's follows in a similar lyrical vein, our protagonist remembering the struggle he went through before arriving at this highly profitable point in his life. The song’s kid-choir sing-along chorus – “They don’t teach us the ABCs / We play on the hard concrete / All we got is life on the streets” – is an early high, taking a bleak subject matter and giving it a breezy, summery spin.

While the contrast between his upbringing and where he finds himself today comprises much of the lyrical content throughout this expanded, ‘Champion’ edition of an album originally released in 2009 – it was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize, Canada’s equivalent of the Mercury – it rarely becomes repetitive. This appealing freshness comes courtesy of boisterous instrumentation, with a live-band feel reminiscent of recent material from Mos Def (who guests on America) and The Roots, and K’naan’s superbly studied flow, which never once trips over itself attempting to squeeze syllables into wordplay against their will.

Three versions of Wavin’ Flag is a bit much – the World Cup ‘Celebration Mix’ version gives the song a positive lyrical slant and raises the percussion level, and the seemingly omnipresent pop go-to guy and cheesy dance guru David Guetta get in on the act with an album-closing remix that yawns its way to the bank. But since the song is many listeners’ entry point for this collection, it doesn’t hurt to add more bang for the newcomer’s bucks.

But Wavin’ Flag is far from Troubadour’s standout moment – with eight single releases drawn from its tracklisting, there’s plenty of quality here. Indeed, it’s of such a solid standard that one can even tolerate Levine’s some-people-call-this-soul? squeals... for the first couple of plays, anyway. 

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