Music Reviews
2:53 pm
Tue October 16, 2012

K'Naan Brings Down Walls On 'Country, God Or The Girl'

Originally published on Tue October 16, 2012 7:06 pm

The Somali-born rapper and singer-songwriter K'Naan can sure pack a lot into a 3-1/2-minute pop song: clever wit, heartfelt angst, a hook you can't shake — and, in the new track "Hurt Me Tomorrow," honky-tonk piano. That's the sort of quirk that helped win K'Naan his earliest fans. All sorts of eccentricities survive on Country, God or the Girl, his most expansive and elaborately produced work to date. Mostly, though, the new album soars with pairings of sharp, confessional rap and catchy vocal hooks.

The music is a joyous collage of juxtapositions: edgy rapping, vulnerable folk melodies and savvy nods to soul, dance hall and rock. One classic K'Naan track, "If Rap Gets Jealous," answered back to critics who didn't like his blending of rap and rock. Well, he hasn't backed down — and this time, in "Sleep When We Die," he has Keith Richards in his corner.

Make no mistake: K'Naan is one skilled rapper, with humor, bite and a flow all his own. Years of hard living in Mogadishu, and then in D.C., Minneapolis and Toronto, have given him all the street cred he needs. He never lets us forget that he comes from a rough, violent world, but the core of his message is disarmingly positive and even touching — as when he stands up for unattractive girls and lost boys, or when he sings about a wall coming down.

That wall might be political, spiritual or personal — Country, God or the Girl, as the album's title has it — but when K'Naan swings the hammer, you can feel that wall crumbling, and it's a thrill. If a refugee kid from Somalia can do all this, there might be hope for this world after all.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Now our review of a new album from the Somali-born rapper behind this international hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAVING FLAG")

K'NAAN: (Singing) When I get older, I will be stronger. They'll call me freedom, just like a waving flag, and then it goes back.

BLOCK: The song "Waving Flag" by K'Naan became the unofficial anthem of the World Cup in South Africa. Our critic Banning Eyre says K'Naan's versatility and powerful songwriting comes through once again in this new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT ME TOMORROW")

K'NAAN: (Singing) This ain't a good time but when is it ever. I know the perfect time, and, baby, that's never. So don't you dare leave me now, throw my heart on the ground because tonight ain't the night for sorrow, but you can hurt me tomorrow.

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: K'Naan can sure pack a lot into a three-and-a-half-minute pop song - clever wit, heartfelt angst, a hook you can't shake, even a honky-tonk piano. That jaunty piano vamp is the sort of quirk K'Naan's earliest fans admired. And all sorts of eccentricities still survive in his most expansive and elaborately produced work to date. Mostly though, this album soars with pairings of sharp, confessional rap and catchy vocal hooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER")

K'NAAN: (Singing) Since I was a kiddo, I was a leader. Heard life was a beach, but, man, I wanna meet her. Swimming deeper but the grim reaper will always creep up. No ice on my bed, so I never sleep up. Flow bolt like Usain try and keep up. Way before waving flag in the FIFA. I was a dreamer. Life was a gamble. Born in a casino, but God never give you burdens you can't handle. Music is my ammo. I'm ready for battle. When I lose right now...

EYRE: K'Naan's music is a joyous collage of juxtapositions: edgy rap, vulnerable folk melodies and savvy nods to soul, dancehall and rock. One classic K'Naan track answered back to critics who didn't like his blending of rap and rock. Well, he hasn't backed down, and this time, he has Keith Richards in his corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEP WHEN WE DIE")

K'NAAN: (Singing) Sorry. But, girl, you're hot. OK, I'm in the touch out. Somebody take the wheel. I'm not drunk. I'm on the thrill. We got our heads in the sky. Love got me high. Let's live tonight. Sleep when we die. Run from the sunlight into the wild side. Let's live tonight. Sleep when we die.

EYRE: Make no mistake. K'Naan is one skilled rapper with humor, bite and a flow all his own. Years of hard living in Mogadishu and then in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and Toronto have given him all the street cred he needs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING TO LOSE")

K'NAAN: (Singing) Someone called the cops on him. Someone told his pops on him. He was talking crooked, and he had some rocks on him.

EYRE: K'Naan never lets us forget that he comes from a rough, violent world. But the core of his message is disarmingly positive, even touching, like when he stands up for homely girls and lost boys or when he sings about a wall coming down. That wall might be political, spiritual or personal - "Country, God or the Girl" as the CD title has it - but when K'Naan swings the hammer, you can feel that wall crumbling, and it's a thrill. If a refugee kid from Somalia can do all this, there might be hope for this world after all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WALL")

K'NAAN: (Singing) And somewhere is where east and west, and the wall is coming down.

BLOCK: Banning Eyre is senior editor at afropop.org. He reviewed the album by K'Naan called "Country, God or the Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WALL")

K'NAAN: (Singing) And I'm holding on too. But no matter what we say or do, the wall is coming down.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.