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Somali-born rapper and musician K'naan became a success based, at least in part, on gritty stories from his childhood in war-torn Mogadishu. But on his most recent album, Country, God, Or the Girl, the edginess of past songs has been replaced with a polished pop sound and lyrics directed to a young American audience.
In a piece in The New York Times, K'naan writes that the shift was one of the compromises he made to gain more popularity.
"I think that's the conundrum," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "You want to reach people, but you also want to reach them in the most authentic way. You now have a mass market and an audience that's listening, but they're in love with a song that means absolutely nothing to you."
K'naan says he shared his truest voice on his first two albums. In the single "What's Hardcore," from 2005's The Dusty Foot Philosopher, he sang about the killing ground of Somalia. In 2009's "Fatima," from Troubadour, he shared his personal angst in an attempt to educate the world about the plight of his country.
"I'm writing from a place of — a center of authenticity, somewhere that only I know how to write from," K'naan says. "[It's] very hard for a song like that to be on the radio here, especially competing against music that's about going out and having fun and buying things and being in a club."
He says that as he prepared to record his third album, his record label encouraged him to change his lyrics to court a wider American audience. Though he says the label didn't at all require him to make the changes, K'naan says he got curious, and that the allure of fame led him to make changes and censor his material.
"You begin to see a larger audience," he says. "You begin to start to get into the job of protecting the audience and protecting them from your message so that they stay in your household — so that you're not too jarring and too difficult and too burdensome."
He moved production from Kingston, Jamaica, to Los Angeles and gave the characters in his songs names like Mary and Adam.
K'naan says it worked in the sense that his recent singles got more play on Top 40 radio. Though he says he doesn't think the songs are bad, he ultimately feels that his work and his message were cheapened.
"That's the catch which ... all of us have to kind of be careful about," he says. "To reach your goal authentically is probably, in the end, going to mean much more to you than having reached it in a false way."