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Live review: K'Naan at the House of Blues

August 5, 2010 |  4:20 pm

He comes off more as congenial master of ceremonies than attention-demanding rapper.


K’Naan took advantage of an enraptured audience Wednesday night at the House of Blues to perform a director’s cut of his song “Take a Minute,” one of many from his 2009 album, “Troubadour,” that describe the impact of a childhood spent in war-torn Somalia.

Crouching at center stage while his five-piece band vamped behind him, K’Naan explained that he’d recorded much of “Troubadour” at Bob Marley’s former home in Jamaica; the experience, he said, inspired several lines that didn’t make it into the studio version of “Take a Minute.”

“It ain’t every day that you get to give,” he rapped, “It ain’t everyone that gets to live.” He repeated the lyric several times, willing the words into the kind of humanistic mantra that Marley might have admired. Then K’Naan began jabbing at his heart, adding dramatically, “And it gets me here.”

Heart matters above all else to this 32-year-old singer-rapper, who fled Mogadishu with his mother and siblings in 1991 and eventually landed in his current base of Toronto. Though it includes cred-conferring cameos from respected MCs such as Mos Def and Chali 2na, “Troubadour” isn’t much of a hip-hop album: beats too weak, delivery too static, wordplay too corny. At the House of Blues, K’Naan corrected few of those faults, rattling off his eager-sounding rhymes in a nasal monotone that was often swallowed by his band’s rock-informed accompaniment.

During his encore, when a fan requested “Somalia,” he extracted a promise of silence from the audience before he agreed to perform the song — a virtual admission of defeat for a rapper, whose job description can more or less be boiled down to forcing people to pay attention to you.

As a piece of polyglot pop, though, “Troubadour” sometimes works beautifully; it’s openly anthemic music that shares more with a band like U2 than with Nas or Rakim, both of whom K’Naan has said moved him to start rapping. Wednesday he seemed most comfortable leading the audience in group sing-alongs, as though he were reclaiming the original notion of what a master of ceremonies does.

By that measure he’s exceedingly gifted: Within the first few seconds of “Wavin’ Flag” — which recently received a huge promotional boost when Coca-Cola selected the song as the centerpiece of its World Cup marketing campaign — K’Naan had the room under his spell, so much so that it was hard not to think of Wyclef Jean’s announcement earlier Wednesday that the former Fugee plans to run for president of Haiti.

Not that K’Naan evinces much interest in the nuts and bolts of governance — nor, really, in the nuts and bolts of anything. His songs are about using feelings as a means of simplifying the world’s complexities, and even at their shallowest Wednesday, they somehow offered up a trace of the profound.

-- Mikael Wood

Photo: James Minchin

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