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