The beauty behind the success of K’naan’s international hit “Wavin’ Flag” was in its unexpectedness. While the song – initially released as a single off his sophomore album Troubadour in early 2009 – was ultimately remixed and revised several times over, at the core of all the hoopla was a poignantly written song in which the glimmer of a better tomorrow cut through a story of Somalian suffering and despair. The song just happened to be imbued with enough humanity and stadium sized sing-along potential to make it adaptable for everything from the official anthem for Coca-Cola’s 2010 FIFA World Cup advertising campaign to Canada’s Young Artists for Haiti benefit collaboration.
The hope was that all the unforeseen success brought on by “Wavin’ Flag” would strengthen K’naan’s confidence in his abilities as an engaging songwriter and crafter of records . After all, in just over a year, the Somali-Canadian rapper/singer/instrumentalist had gone from critically appreciated but commercially under the radar to performing alongside Bono at an event commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Clinton Foundation.
Instead, all the new-found exposure has led K’naan down the opposite path. For most of 2012, he’s been doing what Jay-Z famously and somewhat ironically warns his young rap pulpils against: chasing the radio. If the transition from K’naan’s first album—the raw, eclectic, and often grim The Dusty Foot Philosopher – to Troubadour was accompanied by a recognition that more ears could be captured with bigger hooks and sweeter melodies, K’naan’s follow up efforts to Troubadour have constituted a stripping away of most everything that makes him a unique artist.
It started earlier this year with the release of the More Beautiful Than Silence EP and its accomponying single, “Is Anybody Out There?”—a soulless P.S.A. of a record masquerading as an uplifting anthem. If that song could be excused as a means of getting K’naan back on the airwaves while his name was still afloat in the public consciousness, the rest of the EP did not redeem it. While the project had a few meaningful moments to latch onto, too much of it was bogged down by a pervading and uncharacteristic sense of heavy handesness. Even the Nas-featuring “Nothing to Lose”—an otherwise stripped down rap track—was marred by an overwrought, out of place chorus.
With last week’s video premiere of “Hurt Me Tomorrow,” the first single from K’naan’s upcoming album, Country, God, or the Girl, it would appear that More Beautiful Than Silence was not an aberration but rather the start of a more streamlined direction for K’naan’s music. It’s a stark contrast to the flavorful lead single from Troubadour, “ABCs.” Gone are K’naan’s off-kilter delivery, clever puns, and worldly sound, replaced by hashtag rap and a piano pop arrangement that makes producer Ryan Tedder’s other work sound edgy by comparison. Far from a irredeemable song, “Hurt Me Tomorrow” is harmless, catchy stuff. It’s also downright vanilla, a disheartening reality for an artist with a story and sound as unique as K’naan’s.