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Music Review: The Dusty Foot Philosopher

You might think you know hip-hop. You might listen to the mainstream songs that play on your local top 40 radio station. Maybe you’re even into the good stuff – underground acts that haven’t been tainted by the bottom line or a juicy contract. Regardless, I can pretty much guarantee that you haven’t heard anything like The Dusty Foot Philosopher, the 2005 album by the Somali-Canadian artist K’naan.

Everybody, meet Knaan.

Everybody, meet K'naan.

This stuff is hip-hop as it was meant to be. There’s no focus on materialism or wealth, just a man trying to tell it how it is. K’naan sounds a bit like Pigeon John, but with something to actually say. If you’re looking for a mainstream example, his sound seems like Talib Kweli mixed with Bedouin Soundclash.

K’naan has one of the most fascinating backgrounds of any artist out there. Born in Somalia during the Somali Civil War, his family fled to North America and eventually settled in Canada. Most of his music has something of a social message, typically in protest of the conditions in Somalia (or Africa in general) and the rest of the world’s apparent apathy.

He got his “break,” if you will, after doing a spoken-word performance at the United Nations in 1999. K’naan was invited to collaborate with singer Youssou N’Dour, eventually touring with him. From there, he ended up performing at various other U.N. events and music festivals, eventually signing with BMG Music and releasing The Dusty Foot Philosopher. Most recently, K’naan joined Damian Marley on a world tour entitled “Welcome to Jamrock.”

The Dusty Foot Philosopher grabs you as soon as you press play. It starts with “Wash It Down,” a percussive piece that uses splashing sounds to create the beat above which K’naan performs. He constantly spouts witty lyrics, such as “People need music like they need excuses / People need water like Kanye needs Jesus / So wash it down.”

In the chorus of the song “Soobax,” K’naan raps in his native language. I didn’t understand a bit of it, but I enjoyed the natural rhythm and sound it created.

Much of K’naan’s lyrics are heavily influenced by his childhood experiences in Somalia. The song “My Old Home” is particularly gripping; he sings that “Goodwill is looted in my old home / Religion is burned down in my old home / Kindness is shackled in my old home / Justice has been raped in my old home.”

Despite everything he has been through, K’naan continues to uplift and encourage others. On “Smile,” he urges other to “Never let them see you down / Smile while you bleeding.” K’naan belts out these lyrics like they’re all he’s got. His words are powerful; I can’t resist singing along with him, if only for that single line.

Throughout The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K’naan draws you into his world. His lyrics often feel more like poetry, as if they’re out of place on a hip-hop album. I was constantly impressed by his descriptions and clever lyrical construction. The album is riddled with puns and small jokes – “I’m not gonna sit here and whine / like crushed grapes” is one example from the title track The Dusty Foot Philosopher.

For all the strengths of The Dusty Foot Philosopher, it isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, the album is stamped with one of those labels that proclaim “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT CONTENT.” I’m of the opinion that if K’naan really wanted to set himself apart from the “gangsta rappers” of the world, he wouldn’t have used such excessive profanity. Restraining himself a bit would have probably increased his appeal dramatically in demographics that don’t generally listen to rap or hip-hop.

The Dusty Foot Philosopher is like a shot of adrenaline for the rap/hip-hop genre. It refuses to follow the standard formula of rapping about money, women, and power, instead focusing on something with greater significance. If you’re looking for something fresh, or trying to expand your musical horizons, or even if you have no idea what you’re looking for, this album will be perfect for you. I’m always trying to find new, genre-bending music, and K’naan’s album is a perfect fit.


September 8, 2008 - Posted by | Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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