What’s that flag he’s waving? Don’t shoot. He comes bearing pop music. He sympathizes. He uplifts. He is ambitious.
On Tuesday, K’naan, the luminous Somalian-Canadian rapper, releases Country, God or the Girl, the full-length follow-up to his stadium-sized jingle, Wavin’ Flag. According to the press release, the record marks the Juno winner’s attempt to address “the internal wars, rather than the external ones, which I’d been preoccupied with on my previous albums.”
His previous LP was 2009’s Troubadour, a colourful and optimistic package of pop, rap and Third World swing.
Here, K’naan, quickly gets us back to speed on his story, just in case we forgot his thing. The Americanized, radio-reaching Country, God or the Girl begins with The Seed, naturally. A wiry Afro-guitar lick soon gives way to much bigger things: an insistent beat, a metallic reggae-rock riff, a slim-voiced K’naan chronology – “life’s been difficult, but I’m not typical,” sings the refugee-camp survivor.
The chorus is an arena-ready pledge to his doubters and critics. K’naan is a tree: “They never gonna cut me down.”
He seeks to grow with his audience – a crowd cultivated under the Wavin’ Flag banner, the Coke-sponsored sing-along to the 2010 FIFA World Cup of Soccer. A heck of a free kick that was.
Very early this year, with an audience waiting for this album, K’naan released More Beautiful Than Silence, a five-song EP that served as a stop-gap until the full portion came. Four of those five songs made it onto Country, God or the Girl, thus reducing the significance of the full album.
It feels like, “and here’s some more.” It feels less than cohesive. It feels like staggered momentum trying to pick up again.
There’s some affecting stuff here, mind you. Gold in Timbuktu is a lovely, dainty deal, on which K’naan sings wistfully to a gentle piano melody, with strings and a harpsichord effect added. It’s set in the future – “when I am old and lonely, will you still be there for me.” It concerns life’s choices and contradictions, and is co-written with Chilly Gonzales, the curious composing pianist who is paid to provide hummable stuff for Feist, and who is currently working with Drake.
Other guests include Bono, Keith Richards, will.i.am, Nelly Furtado and the rapper Nas. All of them – and K’naan – are signed in one way or another to Universal Music, a fact which I point out for no particular reason.
That is unmistakably the charismatic nasal tones of Furtado on Is Anybody Out There?, a cloying pop/rap shoulder to cry on. Lightweight and catchy, it is one of the EP carryovers, as is Nothing to Lose (with Nas), a trippy, basketball-referencing number with brass, nimble rhyming and smooth lines about paying dues and shining shoes.
Sleep When We Die wastes a marvellous and funky Richards guitar riff. The generic chorus is one of those big, looping jobs, suggesting musically and lyrically that we live for the moment.
The instantly likable Alone won’t be alone for long. Built around a sample of the Romantics’ 1983 hit Talking in Your Sleep and featuring will.i.am, it is Drake-like in its rich-man’s melancholy: He got the money and the honeys, but he ain’t got no queen. The giant, marching, girly-sung refrain – “the sun goes up; the sun goes down” – is unstoppable.
The stimulating, balladic Bulletproof Pride is U2-y, even without Bono, who supplies harmony and advice – “even mercenaries could use a little help.”
K’naan, then, offers helping hands. He seeks to lighten your burden, one sweeping hook at a time. Country? God? The Girl? They come second, third and fourth to a jumbo-sized chorus. The spotlight is back on K’naan, the would-be choir master to the world who now has more ammo for uplift and big stages.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
- Sub Pop
- Three and a half stars
The most sought-after grunge-era collectible might be Puss/Oh The Guilt, the 1993 split single between Nirvana and cult post-hardcore outfit the Jesus Lizard. If you melted the vinyl and repressed it so that the two songs became one, it might sound like METZ. The Toronto trio’s self-titled debut (for Sub Pop, Nirvana’s original label) is as tuneful as it is face-melting; what sets them apart from their sometimes-dour musical forefathers is the seemingly unbridled glee METZ exhibits. Singer/guitarist Alex Edkins sing-screams like he’s on a rollercoaster – you can’t tell whether he’s delirious or terrified. But for a disc whose song titles include Wet Blanket and Rats, there’s loads of jiving and shimmying fodder like Knife in the Water. New and improved underground nineties-style rock: all the flavour, none of the angsty overwrought calories. Dave Morris
- Tame Impala
- Three and a half stars
The sampler was supposed to enable dazzling fusions of artists separated by time and distance. Instead, we got mash-ups: music’s answer to George Lucas using CGI to ruin Star Wars. It still takes vision and creativity to make a winning musical bouillabaisse, and Australian studio band Tame Impala has both. Take jazz-inflected but still thundering sixties-rock drums, add wistful refrains about girls (“it feels like I only go backward”) rendered in Kevin Parker’s winsomely adenoidal croon, and stir in hints of psychedelic soul: Boom, one fabulous sophomore album. But stand well back – one whiff of this can hook you. You’ll be air drumming the post-Motown stomp of Apocalypse Dreams or singing the melody from Mind Mischief for weeks. It is too late for me; remember your training, save you it can. D.M.
ROOTS: Tender is the Night
- Old Man Luedecke
- True North
- Three stars
His instrument kills bad days and monotony. While the super-powered Mumford & Sons uses banjo music to soar and overwhelm, and more rustic types go old-timey for the sake of old-timey, this grinning Nova Scotia songster Chris Luedecke tickles with words and five strings. His fourth album has a touch of Nashville polish to it, and there’s a little less claw hammer than before, but the storytelling is special: songs of reassurance, fables for the lost or doubting. Toes tap, metaphors whiz, jaunty aplenty. And the night is tender and better for the craft of this do-good troubadour in rose-coloured glasses. Brad Wheeler
World Music: Heritage
- Lionel Loueke
- Blue Note
- Three and a half stars
Thanks to the backlash against jazz-rock, “fusion” has become something of a loaded term in jazz circles. Heritage, however, is a fusion album strictly in the sense that it brings together diverse stylistic elements – Western jazz, African pop – to create something new. With Robert Glasper handling both keyboards and production, there’s more emphasis on vocals, and a stronger groove than on Loueke’s previous efforts. But there’s nothing simplistic or mechanical about what bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Guiliana lay down; even when they’re deep in the pocket, there’s a polyrhythmic freedom to the playing that brings out the best in Loueke’s sinuous guitar lines. J.D. Considine