Troubadour begins with an animated tour of K'naan's homeland via "T.I.A.," which stands for "This is Africa." Chubb Rock joins in on "ABC's," a high-energy romp that manages to contain infectious dance music and sobering lyrics like "somebody please press the undo/They only teach us the things that guns do" without sounding conflicted or inconsistent. Damian Marley assists on the similarly-paced"I Come Prepared," where K'naan informs listeners that "Africans love them some B.I.G./But Tupac is official H-N-I-C/And my job is to write just what I see/So a visual stenographer is just what I be."
Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine helps steer the album in different direction topically on "Bang Bang," where K'naan rhymes about the tried-and-true topic of the intoxicating effect that women have. The quirky beat and Levine's hook keep things fresh and act as a bit of a reprieve from the more serious subject matter, as the song proves to be extremely well-placed. The chorus-and-string combo of "Somalia" conjure up memories of Jay-Z's [click to read] Annie-sampling masterpieces "Hard Knock Life" [click to read] and "Anything" [click to read]. Sadly, this is followed by the oh-so-disappointing "America" [click to read], where Mos Def delivers the same laziness that marred Tru3 Magic [click to read], and ends up wasting the always-reliable Chali 2na's verse.
The thing that's most amazing about Troubadour is how listenable it is. While not a short album at 59 minutes, K'naan's completeness as an artist carries the listener through every song effortlessly. While he's not as deft on the mic as some of the greats, he's more than a capable lyricist, and very charismatic and clever ("Were you from the only place that's harder than Kandahar/That's kinda hard"). The subject matter doesn't stray too far from his homeland, but clearly that's his muse - so why wander from what impassions him the most?
Again, K'naan is able to cover topics like having to wait on aid from America ("15 Minutes Away") without dragging the listener down. The album is upbeat by design, as K'naan even says on "Fatima," the story of a lost loved one, "It's a celebration. We're not mourning. We're celebrating." The only heavy song is Troubadour's closer, "People Like Me." Astutely leaving it for the end so as not to interrupt the album's vibe, this song tells three heart-wrenching tales, the first of which is about a soldier stationed in Iraq: "My homies said I was stupid for even joining/My counselor said my decision was disappointing/How she had good slates for good state colleges/And with my good grades it wouldn't have been a problem/But they don't understand just the power of significance/More than brilliance, and certainly more than dividends/And if you ask me now, would I repeat it?/Would I fight in a war I don't believe in?/Well the answer is, 'It's not me where the cancer is/They've been doing this before Jesus of Nazareth'"
Another thing that makes Troubadour such a pleasure to listen to is the production. Aided K'naan's nearly impeccable hooks and timely singing, the sounds of this album will get into your head. The production here is a whirlwind of thumping drums, guitar, choirs, strings and bass - with each song delivering a different sound. Whether it's the frenetic pace of the percussion on "ABC's" or Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett's strums on "If Rap Gets Jealous," there's plenty for all to enjoy.
As someone who was previously unfamiliar with K'naan's music, this album comes as a pleasant surprise. With a diverse mix of music and some pop sensibilities, Troubadour is nearly a complete package. There really isn't much to complain about here - perhaps a few tracks could be a little less produced, and nowadays, if Mos Def signs on to do a song, his verse should come with a money back guarantee - but overall, this is one of the premier releases so far this year.