K'Naan Makes 50 Cent Look Like Limp Bizkit 

This summer, while much of the music world was waiting for an Ivy League reach-around from Vampire Weekend, another more potent—hell, more important—collision of African culture and American musical forms was quietly finding its way into record bins across the nation. The Dusty Foot Philosopher, the debut album from Somalia-born, Toronto-based rapper K'Naan, took almost three years to cross the border, but it could not have arrived at a better time.

It's difficult for many TV-centric Americans to envision the great depth and complexity of Somalia, its culture and its strife—for a Yank raised on basic cable it's easy to dismiss the entire place as a warped conflagration of Black Hawk Down and Pirates of the Caribbean. Did you know that Somalia is known as the Nation of Poets and has a long, long history of using poetry in everyday life? That it's a culture where, more or less, everybody is expected to be an ill rapper? Somalis take old-school knowledge to such a different level in comparison that you should just trade in your Rakim tapes for a rocking chair and just call it a day. The Disorderlies VHS in your closet doesn't seem quite so retro-hip now, does it?

The beauty of Philosopher is that through K'Naan's deft reworking of standard hip-hop themes—guns, poverty, braggadocio—he's able to create a juxtaposition that simultaneously affirms the genre's greatness and calls bullshit on the facade that has been propped up by greedy, unimaginative record execs ever since the dawning of The Chronic Age. For all the emphasis on "keeping it real," the disconnect between reality and rappers—backpackers and bling-tards alike—has been widening every record cycle with the celebrity-industrial complex dictating what people rap about and/or rap against. Y'know, the much-ballyhooed game. K'Naan, Mos Def might say, is like a shot clock, way above the game.

"If I rapped about home and got descriptive I'd make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit," K'Naan rhymes on "What Is Hardcore," as if lines like "rocket-propelled grenades blow you away if you front" weren't already making G-Unit look like Lil Wayne-covering white boys Framing Hanley. If you took the tense, grisly lyrics of an early Three 6 Mafia record or The Gravediggas debut, removed the tongue that's planted firmly in their respective cheeks and replaced it with a cultural propensity for verbal skill, you might get close to the spine-tingling imagery K'Naan spits.

Don't think that The Dusty Foot Philosopher is a total bummer, though. It might not be the first album you'd put on at a party—that would be Biz Markie's Pickin' Boogers, natch—but Philosopher is not a dour record by any stretch. "I Was Stabbed by Satan" may be the single most fun song about civil unrest and metaphysical shenanigans in the entire pop pantheon. It's super-catchy—think "Hey Ya!" folk-pop, but without the bubblegum, the smirk and the schmaltz, just the hooks. "Soobax" is the kind of Afro-electro-dub-step awesomeness that might not fill a dance floor on, say Lower Broad, but that shouldn't stop the masses from getting down Sunday night at Mercy Lounge.

It still remains to be seen if K'Naan is more than a rookie sensation, just a guy who has waited his whole life to make this one great album and doesn't have the creative fuel to pull off a second. Early signs are good, like his Web-only version of Lupe Fiasco's "Kick, Push," repurposed to tell the tale of onstage harassment by knuckleheaded bouncers. Troubador, the sophomore set from K'Naan, hits stores in January. Looks like three years of globe-trotting have kept his skills sharp and his righteous fire burning.

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