Ka’s 2012 album Grief Pedigree was not only one of the best albums of the year, but also one of the best success stories hip hop had ever seen. Rap music has always referred to as a ‘young man’s game’, but Ka gave rappers on the wrong side of 35 hope that their best work could still be ahead of them. His completely self-made classic sounded both familiar and fresh at the same time. It utilized a strong word of mouth buzz and a few key twitter endorsements (Erykah Badu, Aesop Rock, & 50 Cent) to propel Ka from a virtual unknown at the start of the year to a fixture on the best of 2012 lists. Ka proved he could rap in the late 90’s as a member of the Natural Elements and later with his debut album Iron Works from ’08, but nobody could have predicted the critical acclaim that Grief Pedigree would achieve. His minimalist production style and stark, self-shot videos were the perfect canvas for his painstakingly crafted rhymes.
Grief Pedigree felt like a lifetime achievement, a gift from the hip hop gods. So when Ka announced he was releasing a self-produced follow up just over one year later, I was excited, but tempered my expectations. After all, this announcement was coming from a guy who was still holding down a day job and had just spent the last year shooting and editing videos for every song on Grief Pedigree. There was no way he could just spit out another album on Grief Pedigree’s album right? Well, The Night’s Gambit is here and thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first thing that stands out on The Night’s Gambit is the production. While Ka’s barely-there beats on Grief Pedigree matched his monotone delivery perfectly, he was clearly an MC first, producer 2nd. While that’s still the case on The Night’s Gambit, his improvement as a producer is noticeable. His light on the drums, minimalist style is still intact, but the beats on The Night’s Gambit are layered with lush textures that insulate his intricate verses and at times force you to choose what to pay attention to. The production makes the album less immediate that Grief Pedigree, but helps set a thematic vibe that makes it an even better and more hypnotic front to back listen. If Grief Pedigree was Ka’s The Infamous, The Night’s Gambit is his Hell On Earth. All four albums are classics, but the follow ups are darker and more refined. They walk the fine line between pleasing fans wanting more of the same as well of those seeking artistic growth.
By kicking the album off with “You Know It’s About” Ka wastes no time in letting listeners know what to expect. The rumbling beat is one of his best yet and Ka rattles off a series of streetwise couplets layered his omnipresent wordplay, weaving every position in a basketball starting lineup into his verse in a way that’s not even noticeable unless the listener is playing close attention. On the album’s closer “Off The Record” Ka shows of similar skills by dropping an homage to his mentor Gza’s classic song “Labels.” While this type of song concept is nothing new in hip hop, the fact that Ka is able to seamlessly name drop so many classic hip hop albums in one four-minute verse makes it a remarkable listen and of the best songs of its type ever made.
Gza’s use of chess as a metaphor has obviously rubbed off on Ka as well, even stretching it further by adopting the viewpoint of a “smart ass pawn” on “Peace Akhi”. It features chess based vocal samples and some of the most clever couplets of Ka’s career- “I play chess, but my past is checkered” and “You just scratched the surface if you ain’t digging me”. The inspiring “Nothing Is” serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece and is perhaps the most transcendent song Ka has ever made. The song’s vivid lyrics illustrate the struggles that have brought Ka to this point in his life and allow him to proclaim “If this ain’t meant for me, nothing is”. Ka’s ability to be honest and vulnerable, coupled with his meticulous craftsmanship, make him so much more than your typical streetwise MC. He may not have the artistic range that some musicians have, but his depth of scope is almost unparalleled in the modern music scene makes his music endlessly listenable.
Ka effortlessly incorporates religious imagery into verses that are entrenched in street morality on songs like “Our Father” and “30 Pieces of Silver.” He never makes overt political statements, but always tries to give listeners a Wire-like view of the mentality that young black men grow up with in the streets of America. “Barring The Likeness” is married to these concepts as well, but Ka reveals how he had an epiphany and began to be able to view the traps that his brothers were falling victim to. The song’s unorthodox, hypnotic beat is probably Ka’s most accomplished production, and the best example of his evolution as a beat-maker. Ka’s unique wall-to-wall production is complemented perfectly by his excellent use of vocal/movie samples. I couldn’t identify them all, but each one adds to the album’s vibe and helps tell Ka’s story.
While it would be hard to say The Night’s Gambit is definitively better than Grief Pedigree, he clearly tried (and succeeded in) making it a more immersive experience. It make take a few listens for The Night’s Gambit to click in the way that Grief Pedigree did almost immediately, but when it clicks it becomes a focused supernova of an effort. Ka’s already two videos deep into The Night’s Gambit as well, here’s hoping the whole album gets the treatment like Grief Pedigree did last year (video playlist). Buy The Night’s Gambit directly from Ka at BrownsvilleKa.com.
Written by John Bugbee
Hip hop is becoming a genre that almost demands at least a one-project-per-year pace just to stay relevant. For an artist like Ka, who wrote, rapped, produced, and shot his own videos for each tightly woven track on his 2012 sophomore album Grief Pedigree, it’s hard to imagine he would be able to repeat himself just over a year later. While one song is a small sample size, his intricate, streetwise wordplay and hypnotic, minimalist production are both better than ever on “Our Father,” the first single/video from his recently announced follow up album The Night’s Gambit. Here’s hoping he can stay this prolific for a few years, but even if he can’t, I’ll be willing to wait for any music he feels like releasing. Pick up The Night’s Gambit on when it drops on July 13, and grab Grief Pedigree now if you have been sleeping.
Written by John Bugbee
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.
Written by John Bugbee