Through soft-spoken knots of words that cut through the air like daggers, Ka is giving rap the lonely lyricist it craves.
Not too many things fare too well with age. Milk starts to spoil after a week, cars begin to breakdown the older and older they get, and houses fall apart, barring any major repairs, after so long. The older something gets, the worse it becomes. This is usually the case.
That being said, some things take time to gain their value. Wine becomes better tasting and more expensive as it grows older, rare collectibles increase in value the longer they are aged, and certain venerable baseball cards are worth a fortune nowadays. Some things even need to be rebuilt, and then could be even more valuable than they were before the repairs. Specific items need a longer duration of time, and maybe even some reinvention, to become better, and the payoff can often be worth a lot more than what was even imaginable.
This seems to be the case with Ka. At 44 years old, the Brownsville, Brooklyn native is just beginning to hit the prime of his rap career, using his life experiences and wisdom to his advantage as he continues to do rap a little bit different than everybody else.
Listen to Ka for a few minutes, and you probably won’t know what’s going on. You’ll be shellshocked. In his music, he piles rhymes upon rhymes, building meticulous bar on top of meticulous bar, every line, every word, and every syllable there for a very specific reason. His music is often so dense that it is incomprehensible the first few listens through. Once the listener reads through the lyrics (which is almost required for his music) and hears the songs many times, the art begins to shine through the gnarl of bars.
Through the harsh, bleak beats which usually include little to no drums, the whisper-like, smoothly intense croon of his voice, and the piles upon piles of compact and crowded rhymes, the opaque yet ingenious lyrics take center stage once an agreement is made. This agreement is that his music is not for everyone, but rather is extremely esoteric, only for those who are dedicated to listening to it and really want to delve into condensed, wretched, and scrupulous poetry. He even says as much on his personal website, which he manages himself and uses to personally ship out vinyls, CD’s, and t-shirts to his small, yet growing fan base (“I already know my songs are not for everyone. They’re not for the radio, the club or the masses. My music is for those who miss early ’90s hip hop when pain and struggle were the dominant themes. … I decided a long time ago that I would make music for the love of it.”) Ka is a beautifully dark intricacy, and rap needs Ka, whether it knows it or not.
One of the biggest things about Ka’s music is the constant motifs he employs in them. Every album includes this motif, and while some people may argue that it’s just a concept album he’s doing and that rappers do these all the time, what Ka does is really more of an overarching metaphor that guides his work and is never specified head-on, but is rather implied through the themes and symbols in the songs. On maybe his most impressive work, Honor Killed the Samurai, the motif is the code of the samurai. He applies this to his own personal life, essentially saying that he grew up in an extremely tough, poverty-stricken upbringing, and that trying to be honorable in such a life could easily get you killed.
Whether it be from the album spoken of above or his 2015 project Days With Dr. Yen Lo (in which he and producer DJ Preservation took on the pseudonym Dr. Yen Lo), his lines are often beautifully simplistic in one breath, but extremely complex and ornate in another (“Try and live wiser/ Give what’s written in my fibers/ Til I’m sitting with messiah/ Oh, I’ve been denied and I’m slipping in a fire” from Day 13) while also sticking a stake into the heart of some of society’s biggest issues (“With bars of greed, I plead, how many cars you need?/ When fathers bleed to fill ribs of kids that hardly read” from $).
Once the amazingly thick and elaborate knot of rhymes are untangled, what he is saying hits hard, and it hits deep. Whether he’s describing his younger importunes for a better life through life lessons and deeply entranced symbolism (“Can’t have a iron heart and a glass chin” from Day 912) or he’s spilling out his motivations and memories of adolescence through double entendres, metaphors, and adroit wordplay (“No one’s mixing words, vicious verbs emerge from being this disturbed/ As a kid observed on curbs where they twist the herb/ Was wrapping the present years before the gift was heard/ My quarters wasn’t in calm waters the ships perturbed” from Mourn at Night) Ka raps with a very skilled pen and some extremely astute observation.
It’s desolate, glum music, but he’s merely describing his life (“You guessed it, pubescent wasn’t too pleasant” from Day 70) in an impressively poetic fashion . Doing so is a kind of self-therapy for him, (he said so on a very in-depth and introspective interview he did with Red Bull Music Academy) allowing him to release the demons of past actions the only way he knows how.
In the grand scheme of rap, Ka isn’t on the forefront. What he writes is subdued, formulaic rap that’s very close to being spoken-word poetry, and this isn’t going to be popular. Popularity was never what Ka was trying to achieve with his music. No, there always seemed to be something more, a bit of intrinsic motivation behind every punctiliously crafted line that he puts together. A desire to release all of the angst and wrongdoings of his younger days, maybe. Or maybe it’s to express his love of what he considers true rap, an art form that shouldn’t be something that’s taken lightly. Either way, it’s the reason he still keeps his job as a New York City fireman, the reason he never goes on tour, and the reason he dismisses praise and acknowledgement in interviews despite the care and attention he coddles his music with. All of these things make Ka who he is, and this is something that the world, and specifically the rap world, needs: a lonesome wordsmith who would rather sit with his mind buried in a notebook than do anything else.