The Brooklyn rapper and producer Ka spent Saturday, the day he released his new album Honor Killed The Samurai, on the sidewalk outside the empty East Village storefront that, at least until a few months ago, was the music-dork mecca Other Music. It’s something he does every time he releases an album. He emerges from what I’ve always imagined as the dank basement studio where he spends most of his time, and he brings a few cardboard boxes of his most recent album. It’s the rare moment where he can shake hands and share eye contact with the people entranced by his entrancing music. On Twitter, Ka wrote, “Going out on album release day connecting w/ people is my way of saying thank you for still listening & not giving up on me when I go silent.” It’s an admirable impulse, but it’s also a ritual. And listening to Ka’s music, you get the sense that he enjoys the ritual — that this is a man who lives by ritual, who has organized his life into rhythms, the same way the samurai warriors who serve as the new album’s inspiration might’ve once done.
Ka makes solitary music. It’s rap music, of course. But there’s basically nothing about Honor Killed The Samurai that announces it as a product of the same genre that gave us, for instance, the (also very good) Rae Sremmurd album that came out one day earlier. Ka tends to make music on his own. He produces all his own music, releases it on his own label, and directs almost all of his own videos. (The new animated clip for “Just” is a rare exception.) More than the actual mechanics of how that music gets made, though, is how atmospheric and internal it is. Ka raps in a desiccated mutter. His production, which seems to draw on half-forgotten film scores and haunted ’60s instrumentals, is pure headphone haze. Throughout history, most of the great rappers have brought an outsized, extroverted flair to what they’ve done, and Ka has none of that. Instead, his presence is a murky, monastic intensity. He does not make social music. He makes music for getting trapped in your own mind.
Ka’s music is so inwardly directed, in fact, that it was a mild shock to see him team up with somebody else — the producer Preservation — on last year’s Manchurian Candidate-inspired Days With Dr. Yen Lo project. Of course, Preservation gave Ka a production palate even sparser and lonelier than the one he’d developed on his own, and the album sounded even darker and more solitary than Ka’s 2013 solo album The Night’s Gambit. And Honor Killed The Samurai continues that trend, pushing his personal aesthetic further into the realm of the abstract, away from the complicated but energetic boom-bap he’d made as part of the mid-’90s New York underground group Natural Elements. A track like “That Cold And Lonely” is a prime example. It starts with a rubbery stand-up bassline, and it layers over that delicately and carefully: a mournful piano plunk; an eerie sleigh-bell rattle; an ambient wash of strings; a desolate spaghetti-western flute; a wordless old-soul wail. Ka piles on all those sounds almost without regard to rhythm. They make up a soup of sound, a bleak musical mood-piece. The only drum in the track is a hi-hat tic that you can only hear if you strain for it. The music on “That Cold And Lonely” isn’t a beat; the term seems insufficient. It’s a carefully cultivated feeling, an evocation of regret and dread.
As a rapper, Ka comes off as someone who doesn’t talk to other people — who has maybe never talked to other people. He could be the sole survivor of a global apocalypse, living in an abandoned prison and muttering his reflections and memories into a tape recorder that he found in a storeroom somewhere. His voice is a gravelly husk, and he uses it in ways that only glancingly nod at things like cadence and meter. His verbiage is dense and layered, and he speaks it quietly enough that you want to lean in to make sure you’re picking up everything. On paper, some of what he says could read as tough talk: “Can’t be pussy in a dogfight / The law don’t forgive what the Lord might.” But in practice, it’s more like he’s an old master philosopher, reciting cryptic koans. The imagery can be vivd and forbidding: “Where they fight with pipes, boxcutters, steak knives / The gritty boots display city truth, I don’t tell lies.” But he’s not reveling in those memories. He sounds more like he’s finding ways to process old traumas. In both the way he raps and the way he produces, I don’t get the impression that Ka is reacting to anything in music right now, that he’s trying to be part of any cultural conversations. Instead, he’s on an inward journey, taking us along with him.
Ka is a man who works in symbols, and I love the idea of him standing out there on that sidewalk outside the old Other Music. He was probably mobbed the whole time — he’s too good not to have an audience, especially in New York — but I like to imagine him all by himself, never moving in pouring rain. In the past, he’s spent release day posted up outside the old Fat Beats, the long-shuttered NYC underground-rap headquarters. But Other Music is a more recent wound, and Ka’s mystic meditations might’ve been a better fit there than they ever would’ve been at Fat Beats. But the store itself doesn’t matter so much as the image of this man selling his own records outside the store that closed because nobody can sell records anymore — the stoic, solitary figure, standing sentry in the ruins of something that only just died.
Honor Killed The Samurai is out now on Iron Works. Stream it below.
Other noteworthy albums out this week:
• Lydia Loveless’ tough, smart roots-country leap Real.
• Crystal Castles’ post-Alice Glass return Amnesty (I).
• JEFF The Brotherhood’s revved-up psych-rocker Zone.
• Ryley Walker’s obliquely jazzy Americana rambler Golden Sings That Have Been Sung.
• Pill’s full-length noise-punk debut Convenience.
• Factory Floor’s viciously mechanized 25 25.
• Big Eyes’ fuzzy, passionate Stake My Claim.
• Roosevelt’s self-titled synthpopper.
• Gonjasufi’s cryptically dubbed-out Callus.
• Total Slacker’s lo-fi dream-popper Parallels.
• Myrkur’s black metal rasper Mausoleum.
• Tobacco’s decaying bedroom-pop opus Sweatbox Dynasty.
• Quasi member and indie vet Sam Coomes’ solo move Bugger Me.
• Skeletonwitch’s biker-metal ripper The Apothic Gloom.
• Alex Cameron’s dark art-popper Jumping The Shark.
• Watsky’s emotive and melodic rap LP x Infinity.
• Eros And The Eschaton’s gauzy psych-rocker Weight Of Matter.
• Turtlenecked’s DIY skronk-rocker Pure Plush Bone Cage.
• My Morning Jacket member Carl Broemel’s solo album 4th Of July.
• Jordan Raf’s trap&B crooner Double Negative.
• Blood Incantation’s psych-metal debut Starspawn.
• Happy Diving’s raw, sludgy Electric Soul Unity.
• Arc Iris’ wandering, psychedelic Moon Saloon.
• Tall Heights’ folk-pop debut Neptune.
• Bueno’s Pavement-damaged Illuminate Your Room.
• CC Mose’s sad-pop diary Beat Me.
• Peter Broderick’s John Cage tribute Partners.
• Pascal Pinon’s minimal folker Sundur.
• French Montana’s guest-heavy mumbler MC4.
• Dolly Parton’s old-school country masterclass Pure & Simple.
• The soundtrack to the Sharon Jones documentary Miss Sharon Jones!
• The Great Sabatini and Godstopper’s split EP.
• KAYE’s HONEY EP.