Over the last few years, New York producer Ray West has quietly had his hands in some of the best hip hop music around. West’s jazzy, sample-based production and preference to work with 1990s holdovers like AG, Roc Marciano, and Party Arty gives his music a throwback feel, but not in a cliché trying-to-recapture-the-golden-age type of way. His one-on-one album with Diggin’ in the Crates (DITC) legend AG Everything’s Berri exceeded all expectations and showed that it was possible for rappers to revive dormant careers with the proper focus and the right producer in tow. West and his Red Apples Forty-Five record label have slowly been raising their profile, and Luv NY is a true statement of arrival. The album’s New York focus is clear, specifically honing in on the feeling that 90’s New York hip hop gave its listeners and participants, even if the beats themselves and the rhymes on display feel more evolved than typical mid 90s NY hip hop. AG is joined on the album by Thought on Tracks favorite Roc Marciano, his DITC cohort O.C., and NY underground legend Kool Keith.
Not surprisingly AG, Roc Marci, and O.C. all sound comfortable over West’s trademark dusty-but-smooth grooves composed of understated drum samples and seamless, atmospheric loops. The surprise would have to be Kool Keith and his album stealing verses. Keith has always been one of the smartest, most original hip hop artists around, but his rapping had gotten more and more sporadic in recent years and most of his material that has surfaced has been hard to listen to for various reasons (mainly the beats). On Luv NY, Kool Keith sounds invigorated, contributing a standout solo track in “Remember U” and stealing the show on both “Extreme Status” with AG and “Pressure Up” with Roc Marci. The bouncy “Remember U” sees Keith riffing on the present and the future, and the nature of posing and perception in the modern flavor-of-the-moment climate. On the hilarious second verse, Keith describes himself as “a critic of a critic” and makes you wonder why he doesn’t work with producers like Ray West more often. “Pressure Up” is also a highlight, with Keith’s visual stylings contrasting perfectly with Marci’s awesome coming of age in the city tale. It’s a combo that looks strange on paper, but works flawlessly here.
Similar to Kool Keith, AG has sounded invigorated since he first started working with Ray West a couple of years ago. His conversational, witty verses are the glue that holds this album together and reveal an artist that has truly changed his style for the better in recent years, and in many ways has outgrown his legendary past. AG’s verse on “Egyptology” comes off like a mission statement and is a perfect example of how adept he has become at expressing himself, starting with “I ain’t the sickest with the sales, my intuition is rebel”, before breaking down his spiritual perspective. The spooky beat on “Random” and AG’s ode to the past through his stream of consciousness flow is a great closer, while his collaboration with Roc Marci “The Blues Got Ya” may be the most representative track of the albums overarching 90’s nostalgic feel, a fond look back at growing up in the middle of New York’s vibrant culture. AG’s DITC brother O.C. usually flies solo and it’s no different on Luv NY, as his contributions are limited to two solo tracks. “Legacy” sets the table perfectly for the album’s historical tone and West’s stuttering, minimalist beat for “Acid” is the perfect canvas for O.C.’s cooled out musings. While O.C. hasn’t really updated his style in the manner that AG has, he’s still a more than capable MC, as his solid album Trophies from earlier this year and his appearances here show.
There are a few other guests, most notably frequent MF DOOM collaborator Kurious who contributes the impressive ‘for the kids’ cut “Shorties Watching”, but the bulk of the rhymes are handled by the core group of AG, O.C., Roc Marci, & Kool Keith. Similar to The Alchemist’s Russian Roulette, Luv NY is not your typical producer album. Ray West chose the rappers for Luv NY carefully, whose appearances are a great example of the type of suction he’s gaining in a certain demographic of legendary NY MC’s. While it only contains one true instrumental track in “The Ritual”, that one perfectly placed hypnotic track is enough to prove that West’s music is effective with or without an MC. It’s hard to compare this album to some of the stellar, personal solo albums that have been released this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. If you grew up listening to artists like DITC, Kool Keith, and Pete Rock there’s no reason you shouldn’t love this album, even if you’ve moved on from the boom bap sound that mid 90’s New York hip hop is associated with. It has an accessible feel, and is a quick, addicting listen. Download the album via iTunes or grab the CD from FatBeats.
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Written by John Bugbee
Roc Marciano is an artist I’ve mentioned at least a couple of times on Thought on Tracks. Marciano is a veteran of New York’s hip hop scene who came up under greats like Busta Rhymes and Pete Rock. Roc’s always been a special MC, but ever since his long awaited, self-produced solo album Marcberg dropped in 2010, he’s emerged as quite possibly the best rapper on the planet. Although his follow-up album Reloaded was delayed and has no current release date, Marciano has stayed busy, working extensively with producer The Alchemist, as well as outshining several of the best MC’s in the business on their own tracks. “Change” is the first track off the Double Feature EP from the UK producer The Purist. While rappers often submit throwaway verses for producer compilations, Marciano seems intent on proving he’s the best with every single verse, spitting intricate gangster-isms like- “I jump out of the Porsche and spray, till your complexion pale four shades”. His laid back, detail oriented style shines over The Purist’s minimalist beat, making “Change” an addictive track that can be listened to repeatedly. Check out the video and get a feel for what a rapper in a creative zone sounds like in 2012.
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