As I implied last night when I finally came back to posting about underappreciated music here, I’ll be writing two more pieces this evening. Later tonight I’ll have a review of a snarling new album by State Radio, but I’m beginning with one of 2012’s most anticipated albums in mind- if for no other reason than that it’s been long-delayed and put off. When it didn’t drop in May (or June, or July) I started to worry something had gone horribly wrong with K’naan’s follow-up to 2009’s Troubadour. I’m still not sure why it took so long, but October 16 Country, God, or the Girl arrived. And I’m writing now to break it down for you.
There are so many things about this album that don’t make any sense. K’naan seems to be the absolute best as tighrope-walking the line between superstar-level fame and eternal obscurity. It could be because instead of capitalizing on becoming the 2010 World Cup’s theme music and palling around with will.I.am K’naan took his first trip home in 20-odd years to document famine and destruction in his native Somalia, but the fact that a rap album featuring cameos from Bono and Keith Richards could fly so far under the radar that even fans couldn’t pin down the release date is amazing. Now that Country, God, or the Girl is finally here, we have an album that will be categorized as rap because K’naan is a rapper, though there is roughly as much singing as rapping, and the hard-edged beats that even I expected from the sneak peak EP More Beautiful than Silence are a minority on the full-length.
Even those slightly more jagged tunes only reflect a more pop sensibility than the rest of K’naan’s music, as work with some really slick producers has yielded familiar tracks like “Is Anybody Out There?” and “Better” (detailed on my write-up of the EP released early this year). The leadoff single from the new album goes by the name of “Hurt Me Tomorrow“, a piano-driven bouncer that features K’naan straining his voice to the top of his range and delivering lines about putting off a breakup while referencing pop culture figures spanning the past eighty years. “Hurt Me Tomorrow” is undoubtedly a catchy tune, and the drum-machine-plus-bright-piano sound definitely reflects the conventions of post-2000 mainstream hip-hop (think Jay-Z or Cam’ron), though the last remaining vestiges of K’naan’s Somali accent and idiosyncratic vocal stylings keep even a song about such a broad topic at least a tiny bit original.
And subject matter is clearly a dimension of this album in which the artist wanted to diversify. The references to his country’s civil war and his identity as both an African and a refugee are still plentiful, but in a Rolling Stone video interview the rapper states clearly that he wanted this album to look more introspectively at his own emotions and emotional experiences that listeners anywhere could relate to. The combination of this new lyrical focus and a concerted return to the samples of soothing acoustic sounds and East African jazz records yields an album that sounds at once more conventional and more left-field than anything K’naan has done. The understated “Simple“, for example, sounds like a blend of Coldplay, the Police, and Sub-Saharan Mbira music, creating an insistent groove in which the jangly thumb pianos play with the artist’s puzzling over his continued survival. More than once distinctly East African melodies come into play in electric guitar lines: the album opener “The Seed” explodes into a pounding chant about K’naan’s gratitude for life and drive to be at his best while “Bulletproof Pride” contemplates how to stay friends with a (literal? metaphorical?) mercenary while Bono (yes, that Bono) sings backup. By the time the record rolls to the standout “70 Excuses” and its slow burn from a minimalist meditation to an afropop-tinged saxophone romp, anything seems fair game. Country, God, or the Girl is just K’naan making his music his own way, and orating on his emotions and dreams as he carries on.
The new album isn’t without its flaws. I’m always skeptical of will.I.am’s appearance, and his appearance amidst the slappy guitar of “Alone” is unexpected at best and unpleasantly confusing at worst. Likewise, Mark Foster of Foster the People appears on the last track (it’s technically a bonus track, but the album appears meant to be listened to with everything included) to wail falsettos over hand claps, tambourines, and a churning chorus. These aren’t necessarily bad tracks, but they definitely feel like half-baked experiments, and these fall into a category with “Gold in Timbuktu” and “The Sound of My Breaking Heart” as less-stellar moments on the record.
Having said that, Country, God, or the Girl is in many ways what I was expecting and hoping for. K’naan continues his evolution as a musician by widening his musical scope while taking his lyrics deeper into his own chest. The raw passion of The Dusty Foot Philosopher isn’t to be found here, but the rapper gives the listener an equally earnest message with a much clearer head and a more even composure. It’s rare that he gets terribly specific in his storytelling on this album, but K’naan appears to have hit onto something by speaking to experiences he’s had that his entire listenership also shares. Even beyond the fact that this is musically a fantastically diverse rap album, and the fact that K’naan’s lyrics feel just as urgent and plaintive as ever, this is quite simply just a lovely modern hip-hop album. Country, God, or the Girl is a paradox in its simultaneous appearance as a star-studded commercial affair and a socially-conscious mixtape that flows through its architect’s memory with unlikely arrangements of music from around the world. The album is uplifting at turns and hollow at others, but there’s never a point at which I want to stop listening.