The story, in most of its tellings, goes like this: On the day of her wedding, Eurydice, trying to get away from an extremely horny satyr, falls into a nest of vipers. She is bitten, and she dies. Eurydice’s husband is Orpheus, the man who once sang so beautifully that his ship, the Argo, was able to sail right past the Sirens, the creatures whose voices led countless men to their doom. Upon discovering his wife’s body, Orpheus sings a song so sad and beautiful that the gods cry. Orpheus travels all the way to the underworld to bring his wife back, and his music is so beautiful that Hades, the god of the dead, is charmed. He agrees that Orpheus can bring Eurydice back to Earth as long as they go straight out, never looking back. Eurydice walks behind Orpheus, and when he reaches the surface, in all his anxiety, he looks back at her. And she’s gone. As powerful as music might be, then, it’s still ephemeral. Death is forever.
The Brooklyn poet Ka has always been drawn to tales like that — majestic, eternal, tragic. Ka is a man with a past — a history in the New York rap underground of the ’90s, where he was a member of the group Natural Ingredients. For the past decade, though, Ka has been separate from the rap world, making music instead as a solitary, almost monastic artistic pursuit. Ka’s wife is a former Vibe editor who now works with Pharrell; presumably, he could have a career in the music business if he cared to play the game. He doesn’t. Instead, Ka, now deep into his forties, works as a fire chief in Brooklyn. And he makes music on his own — rapping, producing, releasing music on his own label, directing his own videos, standing out on the sidewalk on record-release day to sell his music to people who he can greet face-to-face. He doesn’t tour. As far as I know, he doesn’t even perform.
Ka’s an album artist, one who builds entire LPs around whatever loose concept is drawing him in at any given moment. The Night’s Gambit: Chess. Honor Killed The Samurai: The samurai code of bushido. Days With Dr. Yen Lo, Ka’s 2015 collaboration with the producer Preservation: The Manchurian Candidate, both the book and the movie. Ka turns his fascinations into art. And with the new album Orpheus Vs. The Sirens, he’s done it with Greek mythology.
For about three minutes, I was worried Ka had finally fixated so hard on a theme that he’d turned it into a gimmick. On every bar of “Sirens,” the first song from Orpheus Vs. The Sirens, Ka drops the name of a creature of Greek mythology, the same way the Game might drop the name of a ’90s rapper. “I told son, won’t be fooled by no one, like the Cyclops.” “Large crops or hard rocks, it’s like we all saw Medusa.” “Being deprived of the papes, made a lot of mistakes in my era / Hard life, of course you needed white horse to defeat the Chimaera.” This is sharp, clever writing — the bit about the Cyclops is beautiful when you remember that Odysseus introduced himself to Polyphemus as Nobody — and it’s remarkable how Ka can do all of this without forcing it. But I didn’t think he could sustain it over a whole album. I should’ve known better than to think he’d even try.
Greek legends do have a pretty amazing cosmology of gods and heroes and monsters, an interconnected world of stories that always, when I was a kid, reminded me of the Marvel Universe. That’s what draws you in when you’re a kid. Maybe that’s what first drew Ka in, too. But he’s more invested in the endlessly resonant stories of death, of tragedy, of confronting the infinite and learning that you’re just a man. In the world where he grew up — Brownsville, the same Brooklyn neighborhood that gave us M.O.P. and Heltah Skeltah and Masta Ace (and Andrew Dice Clay and Larry King and Howard Zinn and Al Sharpton and all Three Stooges) — Ka sees a perilous, bloodthirsty world like the Greece of mythology. And he hears parallels between those ancient historic struggles and his own.
Ka raps in a heavy, intricate mutter, like he’s talking to himself, puzzling out his own wording. He’s like the densest, most insular of the ’90s rap stars — GZA, maybe, or Jeru The Damaja — only turned even more dense and insular, his words all directed inward. On Orpheus Vs. The Sirens, he sounds like he’s on a journey of self-reflection, dealing with finalities of his own: “In 2015, said goodbye to my brother / On sight, I might look pristine; I’m still trying to recover.”
Ka wonders about the idea that his entire journey has been chosen for him: “Survive ruins, was it my doing or fate? / Is this pre-scripted, or am I doing it great?” He thinks about the choices that he’s made, pursuing his own muse when he could be out chasing money: “Decided quiet, but desire what the rich want / Torn steadily: Longevity or a quick stunt?” He thinks about his own art in mythic terms: “Carve a dozen bars harder than the 12 Labors.” And he considers himself as the hero in his own story: “Romans feast, not known for peace / Never rest, forever quest, Golden Fleece.”
The album sounds so solitary, so trapped in its own head, that it’s striking to realize how collaborative it actually is. Ka didn’t produce the album, and he didn’t release it under his own name. Instead, the credited artist is Hermit And The Recluse, the duo of Ka and Los Angeles producer Animoss. Animoss’ tracks are diffuse and contemplative, the way Ka likes them. Guitars wind, cymbals crash, sampled voices from TV movies based on Greek myths declaim portentously. Hearing it blind, I would’ve assumed that Ka produced it himself, but he’s found someone else to operate on his hazy, drumless wavelength. On top of that, Orpheus Vs. The Sirens is the rare Ka album with a credited guest — scratchy folk-rock growler Citizen Cope, of all people, who sings a few bars on one song. Ka even got someone else to do the “Sirens” video.
And yet Orpheus Vs. The Sirens is a solitary experience, a record best heard on headphones in the middle of the night. Ka specializes in music like this. It’s not just that he doesn’t rap on club songs. He doesn’t even rap on songs with drums. He is off on his own personal journey, and we are lucky that he’s letting us go to Hades and back with him.
1. Mozzy – “Free Greedo” (Feat. 03 Greedo & Internet Money)
West Coast solidarity is a beautiful thing, especially when it means that a dead-eyed realist like Mozzy can naturally, easily join forces with a gibbering anarchic melodicist like Greedo. And it’s also beautiful that Greedo left behind enough music that he’s now showing up on other people’s songs about how he should be free.
2. China Mac – “Run Dat Back” (Feat. Snap Dogg, Jezz Gasoline, & D-Rocc)
Detroit rap is in a healthy place. If you just click on some random WorldStar video from that city, there is a very decent chance that you will have your whole shit blown back, whether or not you’ve heard of any of the rappers involved, and whether or not one of them seriously decided to call himself Snap Dogg.
3. Craig Xen – “Chopstix”
A best-case scenario for SoundCloud rap, sub-two-minute songs that are all-hook, no-verse, on some Ramones shit. Houston’s Craig Xen has cracked the code.
4. Warhol.ss – “Layin Low”
Of course, it would also be cool if more SoundCloud rappers were good at actually rapping. Consider Chicago’s Warhol.ss. Chicago’s Warhol.ss is good at actually rapping, even if he’s not good at coming up with a rap name that I can understand or pronounce.
5. Z-Money – “No Floggin” (Feat. G Herbo & Key Glock)
Right now, Chicago is absolutely lousy with rappers who have cool voices. Every one of the three rappers on “No Floggin” has a cool voice, and none of them sound like each other.