Album Review: Ka ‘Grief Pedigree’
Ka’s Grief Pedigree is an album that seemingly came out of nowhere. A survivor of New York’s mid 90’s underground hip hop scene as a member of the group Natural Elements, Ka released his solo debut Iron Works in 2008 to little fanfare. While Iron Works flashed glimpses of Ka’s meticulous wordplay and impressive storytelling, the production faltered and the album lacked direction. Fast forward to September of 2011 when Ka dropped the first single from Grief Pedigree “Cold Facts” via a self-made YouTube video. The song’s minimalistic beat and black and white visual contrasted perfectly with Ka’s intricate, vibrant wordplay “I own the night / The heat’s my receipt” to create a hypnotizing track. The video was an overnight sensation and exponentially expanded Ka’s small fan base. Ka capitalized on the buzz by producing more videos in the coming months, including the astounding “Collage”, to preview the album’s February release. A microcosm of the album, “Collage” is the best display of Ka’s amazing rhythmic flow and is my favorite of his creative videos.
With each video that he released, it became clearer and clearer that Grief Pedigree would be an outstanding album. Ka realized his calm, cadence-driven flow had advantages and disadvantages. Instead of making a raw New York hip hop album in the traditional sense, Ka opted for minimalistic, almost anti boom-bap production. Following in the footsteps of his frequent collaborator Roc Marciano, who self-produced his own album Marcberg in 2010, Ka made all the beats on Grief Pedigree himself. The sample based beats are still 100% hip hop, Ka just isolated the elements that fit his sound the best instead of sticking to a classic template. It almost sounds at times as if he crafted the beats around his layered verses and choruses instead of the other way around. The sparse beats allow Ka to use his voice as another instrument, filling out his skeletal soundscapes.
Grief Pedigree’s poetic verses work well on paper because of the way Ka plays with words’ double meanings “ride with pride, like the last lion”, “eatin’ in the city till the apple is a core”, but in rap form over the right beats, his art really comes to life. Roc Marciano is also the album’s lone guest on the rugged “Iron Age”, returning the favor for Ka’s feature on Marcberg. Ka’s driving beat provides the perfect canvas for Roc and Ka’s visual, survivalist verses. Marciano goes off on the track, showing why he’s widely considered one of the best rappers in the game. Through repeated listens “Iron Age” has become my favorite song on Grief Pedigree and serves as an appetizing sample of their upcoming collaborative album Metal Clergy.
Grief Pedigree is a quick listen at under forty minutes, but not a second is wasted. Every track is filled with quotables and its hypnotic rhythms make it make it an addicting front to back listen. Survival is a constant theme and Ka’s reflective, confessional raps make it clear that growing up in Brownsville, NY was no picnic. He never glorifies hustling, instead painting it as a way of life, and a dangerous one at that. On “Summer” the chorus “Is this gon’ be the summer they come for me?” describes the paranoia that the street hustler constantly faces. Threats can come from anywhere, whether it’s the police or rival gangs/dealers and Ka takes you into the psyche of a hustler on the edge. His movie-like verses are reminiscent of Illmatic era Nas. “8 blastin goons, late afternoon form roadblock/ Started clappin, my little man was unwrappin’ his blow pop/ Shot in the face, never got to taste the sour apple/ Strays from the treys put him down like a power tackle”.
Sandwiched between “Summer” and “Collage” in the heart of the album, “Decisions” takes a look at the street lifestyle from a different perspective. Almost a warning call to younger generations, Ka’s either/or song structure illustrates how one small decision can destroy someone’s life, even at a young age. A simple line like “Honor my moms or who I’m thuggin with” takes on real meaning in the context of the song and forces the listener to consider perspectives outside of their own. While the sentiments expressed and the subject matter aren’t groundbreaking territory for hip hop, Ka’s attention to detail, both in his intricate rhyme schemes and thoughtful production, make Grief Pedigree a true classic that would stand out in any era.
Ka’s resurgent career is another example of how silly the old idea that “rappers should retire at 30” is. One of many 30+ rappers to finally get some attention after years of grinding recently, he’s proving that hip hop is only beginning to evolve and its fans are growing up just like the art itself. Social media and the internet have allowed Grief Pedigree to reach audiences that it never could have before. Ka recently announced that he will be giving up his day job to focus on music. While that has to be a good feeling for him as an artist, it’s be even better news for hip hop in general. Despite a corporate music industry that seemingly has no interest in finding or marketing true musical talent, Ka has found a way to not just survive, but to excel. Check out the seven videos he’s already made for the album and grab your copy of Grief Pedigree for $10.
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Written by John Bugbee