Live Last Night: K'Naan

Strolling onto the Millennium Stage on Friday night in a black fedora, black jacket and oversized scarf, K'Naan suggested an African Justin Timberlake --and the cheers from the overflow crowd proved he has that sort of mainstream appeal.

But the Toronto-based rapper is originally from Somalia, "the hardest place on Earth right now," according to "Dreamer," a song from his new "Troubadour" album. That background explains why K'Naan was included in the Kennedy Center's "Arabesque" festival, and why his music is more earnest than most contemporary American hip-hop.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

While there was an Arabic whirl to the sample that began "ABCs," most of the music was rooted in Jamaica, where "Troubadour" was recorded. Reggae has become a global form, as K'Naan indirectly noted by invoking South African reggae star Lucky Dube in the exuberantly sing-songy "T.I.A." (short for "This is Africa'').

Some a capella passages were more informative than musical, yet the performance was not just a lecture on Third World travails. K'Naan and his four-piece band offered springy rhythms, and several love songs. But where the bouncy "Bang Bang" simply recalled Hall & Oates, "Fatima" moved from a tale of childhood romance to a plea for universal compassion, with the audience responding "love!" to a series of prompts.

K'Naan shares Bono's tendency to preach, so it seemed apt that the set's concluding anthem, "Wavin' Flag," sounded a bit like U2. But the Somali refugee came much closer to his homeland's strife than Bono ever did, which gives his appeals for peace and love a special urgency. It also makes his easygoing charm all the more remarkable.

-- MARK JENKINS

By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 1, 2009; 2:51 PM ET Live Last Night
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