Friday, September 18, 2009

Polaris 09: K'naan, Malajube

Day three of pre-Polaris pondering, following days one and two.

Weekend planning note for Torontonians: K'naan is playing the Phoenix tonight, Sept. 18; Chad Van Gaalen is at Church of the Redeemer tomorrow, Saturday Sept. 19.

The nominees:

K’naan – Troubadour (Sony)

The album: K’naan’s Polaris-nominated debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, was promising, but mostly relied on the novelty of this Somali-Canadian’s life experience and perspective informing his take on North American hip-hop. On Troubadour, however, there is no novelty: this is hardcore funk, hard-hitting hip-hop, and mainstream pop that seamlessly draws from his African influences in ways that no one else has ever managed to pull off. The production is top-notch, and the first four tracks (“T.I.A.,” “ABCs,” “Dreamer,” “I Come Prepared”) are staggering classics.

K’naan doesn’t believe in mincing words; he takes his craft seriously, and there’s nary a lazy line on the entire record. There are certainly cheesy moments—“Waving Flag,” “Fatima”—but even there, K’naan’s distinctive personality shines through. Never mind the small world that is Canada: K’naan is a worldwide original.

The chances: Strong—as long as the jury dismisses the tracks featuring Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, totally pointless cameos that make Troubadour’s two weakest tracks even worse. But such is the strength of everything else, that even those missteps are easy to overlook.

Malajube – Labyrinthes (Dare to Care)

The album: It’s an apt title for a work that contorts Francopop into a unique vision. Malajube’s grungy side is gone, but the genre-jumping of the debut remains, solidified into a prog-rock powerhouse of a band. Best examples: the bombastic, cinematic “Cristobald” (complete with demonic choir); the bizzaro bossa nova of “Dragon de Glace”; the breezy pop of “Porte Disparu”; the grand opening of “Ursuline,” which bears a slight resemblance to Sunset Rubdown, their Mile End neighbours.

Labyrinthes is more likely to hold up than the acclaimed, Polaris-nominated Trompe l’Oeil, which already sounds dated. But this still sounds like a band that is just a few short steps short of making their truly definitive statement. (I know, I said the same thing about Hey Rosetta yesterday, but Malajube are far less predictable—and therefore more promising.)

The chances: Miniscule. I don’t think I read a single Anglo jury member enthuse about this album—in print or anywhere else, with the lone exception of Lorraine Carpenter’s nice cover story for Exclaim—so this has as much of a chance of winning as Gilles Duceppe does of becoming prime minister.

The could’ve-beens:

Handsome Furs – Face Control (Sub Pop)

The album: So much to love. Dan Boeckner’s ragged rock’n’roll voice, always in control even at its most raw. Alexei Perry’s synths and drum machines alternating between primitive and pristine. Boeckner’s huge rock’n’roll riffs driving the electro beats. Continually catchy melodies that could just as easily work as folk songs, Springsteen rockers or disco anthems.

And, if that all wasn’t enough, the production is astounding: the guitars here balance rockabilly reverb with howling feedback, and the electronics are brilliantly arranged as the backbone of these rock songs, not just gimmicky retro signifiers.

“All we want, baby, is everything,” sings Boeckner—and that’s exactly what he and Perry deliver here. It’s hard to imagine 2009 sounding better than this.

Why it struck out: No idea. I swore this would be a shoo-in. So did many other observers.

Older interview here.

Kardinal Offishall – Not 4 Sale (Universal)

The album: For the most part, I’ve all but given up on hip-hop, both mainstream and underground: lazy-ass lyrics and homogeneity being the main reasons. Which is why it’s so surprising to hear an artist like Kardinal pushing himself to do his best work this far into his career, and landing a Top 40 hit in the process (the ubiquitous 2008 summer single “Dangerous,” featuring Akon on the hook).

It was buoyed by a pop song (and featured several others, including Rihanna singing “The Tide is High” for the chorus of “Numba 1”), but Not 4 Sale is at its best when it merges dark electro grooves with Caribbean rhythms, a formula Kardinal pushes to the limit here. His lyrical dexterity is in full effect: he’s cocky, he’s clever, he’s coy, he’s conscious, and he’s “the product of a lot of questionable conduct” with countless one-liners that leap out from the consistently strong production.

There are only three duds here—one, no surprise, features T-Pain—but has there ever been a classic hip-hop album without a bit of fat?

Most importantly: the louder you play this album, the better it sounds.

Why it struck out: Having Akon help you land a huge hit single loses you cred with critics. I’d be shocked if most critics listened to the rest of this album—it didn’t even make the shortlist. Hip-hop heads didn’t seem to care for it, and despite its musical diversity, it didn’t seem to register with the reluctant in ways that K’naan or K-OS did. But no matter—now that he’s proved he has some commercial clout (on radio, at least, if not through sales), this should allow Kardinal to pursue whatever path he chooses. Why not a Fucked Up collab?

Tomorrow: Metric, Patrick Watson

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