The Dusty Foot Philosopher has come a long way from the bullet-strafed streets of Mogadishu. The Somali-Canadian emcee is now an aspiring novelist and filmmaker whose life story, set in war-torn Somalia, will soon become a major motion picture. For his new hip-hop album, the genre-stretching Troubadour, K’naan traveled to Jamaica, recorded in Tuff Gong Studio and spent time chillin’ in Bob Marley’s Kingston home with his youngest son, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley. The late reggae legend’s spirit was everywhere—even in the furniture. “I’d go into the living room, where there was this incredible sofa, and people said I should try lying on it,” recalls K’naan. “I’m a terrible insomniac. But lying down on that couch, every part of my whole being, my entire fabric, was put to rest.” He added, still in awe of the experience: “Here I was on his couch in his living room—it was crazy.”
The Marley presence carried over to Troubadour, which features Damian on “I Come Prepared,” an edgy, dancehall-flavored mission statement. His new album, with its plethora of other top guests, is further proof of K’naan’s growing profile. The jump-jivin’ “Bang Bang” boasts soulful vocals from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, while the Ethiopian jazz sampling “America” contains streetwise raps by Mos Def and Jurassic 5’s Chali Tuna. Rapper Chubb Rock joins K’naan on the whipsmart “ABCs” and even Metallica’s Kirk Hammett lends an earth-scorching guitar solo to the bold remake of “If Rap Gets Jealous.”
But most impressive is the wider musical palette K’naan displays on Troubadour. The seductive “Fire in Freetown” features Afrobeat polyrhythms reminiscent of Fela’s band and the stirring “Waving Flag” is a Dylanesque anthem of hope. Asked to name three songs that he believes have inspired global change, K’naan lists Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Fela’s “Water Get No Enemy” and Marley’s “Hypocrites.” “My job is to write just what I see/So a visual stenographer is who I be,” he rhymes in “I Come Prepared.” Like his musical heroes, K’naan doesn’t shy away from turning hard truths into compelling poetry, making the Somali-born artist less a rapper and more a political troubadour. Rap has good reason to be jealous.