A week and a half after Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail went out to a million Samsung users, another long-pedigreed Brooklyn rapper found an unconventional way to release an album. But this one was different: A few cardboard boxes of CDs and vinyl, carted out to a West Village street corner. Before the Brownsville rapper/producer Ka released The Night’s Gambit, his new self-produced LP, on iTunes or anywhere else, he was out there on the concrete, and he chose his location carefully, standing outside the former site of the storied Manhattan underground-rap emporium Fat Beats. That’s a symbolic and pointed bit of positioning — Ka painting himself as an avatar of keep-the-faith old-head hip-hop values — and maybe an implicit rebuke to Jay’s corporate empire-building. “Off The Record,” the last song on the album, does something similar, weaving in the names of scores of classic rap albums, the same way GZA once incorporated as many record-company names as possible on “Labels.” But if Ka really wants us to see him as an old-school fundamentalist, he may be doing himself a disservice. The Night’s Gambit is actually something way more fascinating: A deeply psychedelic rap album, one that sounds like the drifting noise within one man’s head.
Ka has been around, in one way or another, since 1993, when he started with the group Natural Elements. But he really built a name last year, when he released his truly great self-released cult artifact Grief Pedigree. Ka produced that whole album himself, and he made a bunch of videos for it, as well, directing all of them himself. The album’s only guest was Ka’s friend and frequent collaborator Roc Marciano, another New York relic who’d lately been developing his gift for hazy rap tracks that float like weed smoke through sunbeams. Like Marciano’s Marcberg and Reloaded, Grief Pedigree turned mid-’90s New York boom-bap into something dense and insular, achieving a hazy cinematic grace that couldn’t possibly be further from the genre’s current center (if the genre even has a current center). Grief Pedigree was the sort of album that quietly and slowly made its way around, gradually enrapturing more and more people and building itself an organic audience. And perhaps emboldened by that low-key success, Ka has pushed it even further on The Night’s Gambit. He’s made a rap album that only looks inward, and does it beautifully.
“I play chess, but I got a checkered past,” says Ka on “Peace Akhi,” and chess is a constant theme on the album. The title itself puns on game strategy, and the dialogue samples that float through the album come back to chess over and over again — D’Angelo and Bodie discussing the nature of pawns on season one of The Wire, for instance. In the early ’90s, guys like RZA used chess as a living metaphor for cerebral conquest, but conquest really isn’t what Ka has in mind here. Instead, the very sound of the album evokes the mental state of the chess player — a sort of time-suspended concentration, the stillness that comes from trying to keep track of infinite possibilities in your own head. This is a headphones album, not the sort of thing you bang from a car stereo. Entire tracks drift by without a single drum thwack. I don’t recognize any of the samples on the album, but I recognize their sounds: spaghetti-Westerns sountracks, acid-rock freakouts, low-budget sci-fi TV scores, all turned into deep-concentration loops. It’s a powerful, immersive sound, one you can just let your brain disappear into. Even though it has nothing musically in common with Kurt Vile’s Waking On A Pretty Daze, it has a similar temporal pull working for it. While either album is playing, I tend to find myself staring at a wall for minutes at a time, lost in my own thoughts.
As a rapper, Ka sounds like he’s lost in his own thoughts, too. I don’t doubt that he labors at length on his lyrics; they’re packed with double meanings and deft wordplay. But the way he raps them, he sounds distracted, half-lost. Ka’s voice is an hoarse and elegantly dessicated mutter, a voice built for incantation. Even when his songs have choruses, you almost wouldn’t know it; the only indication that the chorus has shown up is the way he doubles his own voice up. His delivery doesn’t sound like rapping, exactly, there’s no cocksure dick-grab to it. He barely pays attention to the beats he’s painstakingly assembled, and since the beats themselves aren’t all that concerned with the rigors of rhythm, that delivery works. It’s such an insular and sui generis rapping style that when Roc Marciano, once again the only guest on the album, shows up in typically diffuse form on “Soap Box,” he could practically be Nelly. Listening to it, it’s like: Oh right, other rappers exist.
The Night’s Gambit is out now on Ka’s own Iron Works label. Stream it here.
Other albums of note this week:
• Kevin Gates’s fiery Southern rap opus Stranger Than Fiction.
• Andrew Cedermark’s tangled, winding front-porch record Home Life.
• David Lynch’s idiosyncratic electro-blues vibe-creation experiment The Big Dream.
• Gauntlet Hair’s gothy new wave LP Stills.
• Mayer Hawthorne’s slick retro-soul joint Where Does This Door Go.
• Australian free-roamers Hiatus Kaiyote’s debut EP/LP Tawk Tomahawk, already out at home but getting an American release.