For those of us lucky enough to write about music for a living, it’s a real temptation to begin every review with in a time of pandemic, blah blah blah. It’s trite, but it’s real. Most of us haven’t dealt with this level of isolation once in our lives, and the prickly restlessness, the stretches of depression, and the general all-suffusing uncertainty are all new things. So it’s no coincidence that the most nourishing music has come from natural loners — people who already know things about translating internal echo-chamber monologues into art. Fiona Apple is one. Ka is another.
When Ka first popped up on my radar with 2012’s Grief Pedigree, he sounded like a monk on a mountaintop. Ka seemed to arrive fully formed — a dense and craggy poet, born into middle age. He wasn’t, of course. Ka had spent time on the ’90s underground in the group Natural Elements, a name I only knew from stickers on street signs and Village Voice listings. His 2008 solo album Iron Works showed up on some blogs. He’d been on a late-period GZA album that I may or may not have played once. But Grief Pedigree introduced Ka as a shadowy, flickering figure, muttering quietly to himself over mournful and impressionistic beats that he’d made himself.
On the records that he released on his own label, and in the videos that he directed, Ka appeared as a lone hooded figure in empty streets — a creature of shadow and atmosphere. Grief Pedigree seemed impossibly sparse and cold — classic ’90s New York rap reimagined as minimalist sculpture, tingling with wisdom. But if you play Grief Pedigree back-to-back with Descendants Of Cain, Ka’s newest, it sounds like damn Lox record. Ka has only gone further inward, creating a dark and mesmeric sound that owes nothing to anyone else. (Roc Marciano, a frequent Ka collaborator, is a precedent, but he’s not a blueprint. Ka is his own thing.) When Ka materializes with a new record, it feels like having a holy writ delivered into your inbox — a slab of ancient thought that demands to be deciphered.
Part of that is aesthetic. Ka’s voice is even more worn and haggard than it was on Grief Pedigree. He makes that work for him. Ka is pushing 50, and he’s like an aging lead in a spaghetti Western — a guy immediately made more interesting and magnetic by all the lines on his face. Musically, Ka has ventured even further into his own soundworld. On Descendents Of Cain, drums are almost entirely absent. Instead, Ka builds beats out of meditative acoustic guitars, broken music boxes, whispers of windchimes. Ka’s entire “P.R.A.Y.” beat seems to be made from disquieting moans and shivers, ancient horror-movie atmospherics. He’s produced most of Descendants Of Cain himself, but he’s also cultivated partnerships with beatmakers — Roc Marciano, Preservation, Animoss — who understand his aesthetic, and who tap into that dark whisper. When you’re listening to Ka, the world feels like it’s moving in slow motion.
As a writer, Ka, more than ever, is dialed into antiquity. “The style Ka utter is highbrow gutter,” Ka explains on “The Eye Of A Needle,” thus besting any music writer who might hope to categorize him. With every album, Ka takes some idea or text and mines it for personal meaning: chess, bushido, Greek mythology, The Manchurian Candidate. With Descendants Of Cain, Ka meditates on Biblical imagery in general and on the Genesis myth of Cain and Abel in particular. Ka uses that framework to look back, to process the trauma of growing up in crack-addled ’80s Brooklyn. The way Ka tells it, this was a grimy and perilous and heartbreaking existence — the kind of existence that you can only hope to understand through the lens of ancient scripture.
Ka has this stunning, artful way of pointing out connections between historic oppression and circa-now violence: “Descended from baddest slaves, barricades only aggravate us/ Friends and foe dying, no lying, grew up fighting gladiators.” He talks about what it’s like to be discounted and demonized: “They used to call us deviants/ But if they was feeding us, might have had obedience.” In swift and economical details, he gives us little slices of imagery that reveal a whole world where nearly every relationship is transactional and where cold blood is a necessity: “In the hood, handsome don’t matter; girls want who earn most/ Seen killers let off steam, then return to scenes as concerned folks.” He talks about how the only role models are the ones who find ways to thrive amidst the violence: “Our senseis spent days peddling/ Our heroes sold heroin.”
This is well-trod territory within rap music, but Ka makes every wound feel fresh. His traumas are decades into the past, but he still lives with them, and he uses the Bible as a way to think about them: “The lepers infected us, said it was medicine/ Well, life’s tribe’ll fight for survival; that’s all it’s ever been.” On Descendants Of Cain, Ka pulls samples from old Biblical epics — The Robe, The Ten Commandments, The Bible: In The Beginning… — the way RZA mines kung-fu flicks. The Bible is merely a framing device on the album, and Ka is just as willing to use Shakespeare as a reference: “Being angelic get you popped saying something that’s off-putting/ Feeling weak for being in love, like a Moor shouldn’t.” And you can get lost in the sheer majesty of his language, in the sounds that his voice makes: “My birthright like a Sumerian/ Made it out the belly with my cut, like a cesarean.” Certain lines just glitter: “If he ain’t from the maelstrom, I never felt him.”
At one point, Ka turns almost self-deprecating: “You can tell I’m, in fact, a native/ I live this vivid shit; I ain’t that creative.” He’s wrong. Creativity isn’t just making stuff up. It’s also finding new ways to process real things. On Descendants Of Cain, Ka has once more built a whole environment out of words and sounds. He’s invited us into his mindstate. I can’t help but marvel.
In real life, Ka is a fire chief, a job that presumably demands leadership and charisma. As an artist, Ka has his regular collaborators and his rituals. On release day, he usually posts a location on social media, then spends a day out on that corner, selling records to fans hand-to-hand, like he’s a cult-favorite food truck. He couldn’t do that this time, but that’s not the kind of thing that you do when you want to maintain distance, to be a mysterious cipher. And while Ka’s music creates this image of a lone figure wandering the wasteland, he’s not in the business of persona creation.
Descendants Of Cain ends with Ka giving thanks for three important figures in his life — his wife, his mother, his dead best friend. He’s not an island. But during this weird historical stretch where we’re all forced to become islands, his expansive loner music serves a need. I’m grateful to have it.
1. OMB Bloodbath – “Dropout” (Feat. Maxo Kream)
Matter-of-fact rap androgyny is such a powerful force. OMB Bloodbath, from Houston, is new to me, but she’s got presence, and she can stand tall on a track with Maxo Kream. The coda that she sings on “Dropout” is ghostly and gorgeous. I am intrigued.
2. Plu2o Nash – “Unique” (Feat. Valee & Warhol.ss)
Plu2o Nash’s twitchy, uneasy skitter-drones have already made him Lucki’s favorite producer. At this rate, he’s trying to become the favorite producer of every impossible-to-categorize weirdo on the Chicago underground.
3. ICECOLDBISHOP & Kenny Beats – “Dickies Suit”
The LA rapper ICECOLDBISHOP is building a mysterious-guy buzz by bringing a loud and unstable energy. Loud and unstable energy suits Kenny Beats just fine.
4. ONEFOUR – “Say It Again” (Feat. A$AP Ferg)
Just when I think A$AP Mob’s tastemaker run is over, here comes Ferg, teaming up with an Australian drill collective that I’ve never heard of. And the resulting track bangs. Ferg could just spend the next year making nothing but Australian drill music, and I’d be cool with it. Maybe Ferg’s entire career has just been waiting for the emergence of an Australian drill scene.
5. Cash Kidd – “Unappreciated” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Last week, I told Violent J about Sada Baby. If Skuba Steve pops up with clown paint in his beard sometime soon, you can blame me.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
luda vs nelly next week, you say? pic.twitter.com/il7Iu9DdAQ
— doreen st. félix (@dstfelix) May 10, 2020