Ka “Our Father”

On “They Know It’s About,” the first track off the follow-up to last year’s seminal low-fi 100% DIY effort Grief Pedigree, Ka assaults listeners like Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows in a dark cavern, or perhaps more accurately like a crew of starving hooded teenagers jumping a wayward stockbroker in a dark alley deep in Brownsville in 1993.  It’s a fitting re-introduction from a rapper who would prefer to pitch his new vinyl and CD in front of the ghost of Fat Beats to dropping a mixtape on datpiff or bandcamp.  As with his previous efforts, it’s clear that Ka poured many late nights with a pen, pad, turntable, and sampler into the creation of this release.  If Rakim, GZA, and early Nasty-era Nas are the gods of the rap game then Ka’s today’s most orthodox monk, crafting lines with a painstaking alignment of syllables, meaning, symbolism, and wit.  If his rhyme writing isn’t a devote enough process for classic rap heads, he approaches beat-making with equivalent asceticism and has drastically elevated his skills behind the boards over the course of his first three solo albums, to the point where it’s hard to image any producer capable of crafting a backdrop for Ka more fitting than the ones he develops himself.   Then there’s the videos, which he shoots himself, with his keen photographer’s eye and stars in.  There’s so much subtlety to absorb in his work, that any distraction can easily lead the listener to miss crucial metaphors, wordplay, and double entendres. In order to best appreciate his work on a single listen, it’s likely that his albums would need to be heard in a sensory deprivation chamber, where every kick, tick, sampled vinyl crackle, emphasizing overdub, word, syllable, and phoneme could completely sink into the listener’s psyche without distraction.

While in many ways the refinement in production Ka displays on The Night’s Gambit parallel’s the growth his frequent partner-in-rhyme and production symbiote Roc Marciano displayed on Reloaded - a few lusher backdrops, and when the loops are stripped down they’re more idiosyncratic than those on Grief Pedigree -  Ka’s vantage point does not see an overhaul similar to the gutter to parapet ascension that Roc showcased between his solo debut and sophomore release.  This isn’t surprising, as there is no doubt that Roc Marciano’s life, bank account, and ego had all undergone more significant changes since the release of Marcberg than Ka’s have since he dropped Grief Pedigree a little over a year ago.  Despite the critical acclaim surrounding his album last year and his two guest appearances on Reloaded, Ka remains largely an unknown figure to the rap world.  There’s no doubt that the occasional shows, and a few digital sales help the former Natural Elements member to support the costs associated with his music creation and maybe garner him a little extra pocket change, but they haven’t changed his perspective one bit.  He’s still the same “smart ass pawn” outlined by Bodie from The Wire sample utilized during the opening sequence on “Peace Akhi.”  He’s not quite sure how he’s managed to stay alive through the wars, hells, and purgatories that he’s narrated throughout each of his three full length projects, but he’s back once again to impart the wisdom he’s gained by enduring his struggle.

In terms of imagery, The Night’s Gambit is once again filled with Ka’s familiar varied religious iconography, ranging from parables and lines the Bible’s two testaments, to Islamic verbiage, 5%er math, and probably a few remnants of other less recognizable belief systems that have filtered from the diverse landscape of the five boroughs into the shadowy corners of Brownsville over the past few decades.  “Our Father,” “Jungle,” and “Barring The Likeness,” demonstrate Ka’s ability to complexly entwine systems of spirituality within a context of the images of war, gambling, the jungle, basketball, drug trade navigation, and the gutter that were prevalent throughout Ka’s first two releases.  Where card and dice games have been frequent motifs for Ka before as well, as the album’s title suggests, Ka also occasionally uses the game of chess here as an allegorical representation of his own story of long odds survival.  While there are not a preponderance of specific chess references throughout the album, the comparison between life and a chess match where the odds are stacked against the survival of any individual piece – especially when recognizing that Ka is not a king on the board, but a dispensable soldier (a pawn or at best a Knight) – is clearly something that Ka  has contemplated.  Ka also recognizes, as a survivor, that many of his peers had to sacrifice their lives in battle, while he somehow managed to make it through.  On a less personal note, chess’s evolution also mirrors Ka’s in another way.  The game itself, and it’s pieces, has changed often based upon the religious and societal values of the countries its been introduced to over the years – having Islamic origins and Christian representations – similarly to the way that Ka often picks and chooses from the variety of belief systems he’s been exposed to, in order to make his points, and convey his perspective on morality in his own complex social surroundings.

While a majority of the album is dark alley fair, and contemplation of war and survival, there are lighter moments as well, like the obligatory cameo from Metal Clergy partner Roc Marci on “Soap Box.” Like all of their other work together, “Soap Box,” is a solid collaboration, albeit perhaps the only track on the album where Ka’s lyrics seem entirely focused on wit, without the desire to wrap them within one or several larger symbolic contexts.  Similarly outside of the album’s general narrative structure, the album’s closer, “Off the Record,” is created in the same vein as GZA’s “Labels,” “Fame,” “Animal Planet,” “O% Finance,” and “Queen’s Gambit.”  Here Ka urges listeners to “dig through it,” and get familiar with a list of his favorite hip hop albums, while still maintaining coherent narration to the song.  While the concept may not be 100% original, the execution is nevertheless rap masterclass worthy.  On “Nothing Is,” Ka passionately discusses rap as his calling, narrating his growth in perspective over the years and his need to pass it on to others.

While the diversity in the content is appreciated – and helps break up the monotony of his funereal themes – Ka is still at his very best in his most austere work.  Fortunately, that work makes up the majority of the album, and is highlighted on songs like his cautionary tale on betrayers, “30 Pieces of Silver,” his macabre adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father,” and the pugilistic “You Know It’s About,” and “Peace Akhi.”  At just over 38 minutes The Night’s Gambit like Grief Pedigree mirrors the length of Illmatic giving the listener just enough great material to leave them itching to start the album over again after each listen.  In all actuality this probably has less to do with Ka’s desire to replicate Nasty’s formula, and much more to do with his desire to fit his albums on a single piece of vinyl.  Regardless of his motivation, with no filler, it’s the perfect length for an album.  Ka once said that he wanted to be a rapper that didn’t overcrowd the market, leaving his listeners to thirst for a new album between releases.  There is no doubt that the brilliance of this album will have fans fiending for the next time Ka chooses to give them a couple weeks notice that he’ll be showing up in front of the specter of Fat Beats with a new crate of vinyl and a bag of CDs.

Ka “Off The Record”


Kevin Gates “Weight”

If there’s one thing that magazines and online music websites like XXL, Complex, and Spin still seem to do a decent job of it’s creating online debate around the lists that they publish.  That said, there’s one list in particular that garners a ton of attention on an annual basis, partially because it is perceived to be a stepping stone to big things to come in the careers of rappers.  The reality of the annual XXL Freshman 10 is that it’s become one of the safest lists in rap music.  The artists they choose to hold this honor on an annual basis at this point, have usually already reach a modicum of hype, success, and have an engine behind them that ensures that they will – at the very least – continue to maintain the relevance that they had in the year prior, which combined with the increased spotlight they will receive for being on the XXL list, and the label support that they already have (if you think that any artist who makes the XXL Freshman list in 2013 isn’t signed to a label – even if it’s not “official” yet – you’re out of touch with the way things work in the rap industry in this decade).  While not without merit for it’s role as an annual recognition process, the reality is that most of the artists who make the Freshman of 2013 list, will have actually been the freshmen of 2010, 2011, or 2012.  Just taking a look at their list you see a number of great artists, who have been building a rep, and in some cases releasing music on an independent level – or even mainstream level – for a number of years:

The artists who make up the XXL Nominees in 2013:

Chief Keef

Would’ve been a great – visionary – nominee in 2012.  To nominate Keef for a Freshman list in 2013 is basically akin to nominating Jay-Z for a freshman list in ’97 or Biggie in ’95 (not that Keef is Jigga or B.I.G. by any estimation, but he sits atop the game in 2013 – undoubtedly one of rap’s biggest stars at this point).  Keef took the rap world by storm in 2012 and had a much hyped 4th quarter release on a major label by year end, he’s a sophomore if there’s ever been a sophomore.

Gunplay

Again, a great pick if it was 2006 or 2007.  Look I get XXL’s desire to include him in a list like this since Gunplay will finally drop his solo major label debut in 2013, but the reality is that the guy has had half a decade of appearances on major label releases and well promoted mixtapes to build his buzz. To use an NBA reference Gunplay is kind of like the NBA player who doesn’t get drafted, but makes cameo appearances on 1o day contracts with NBA teams on an annual basis – showcasing his skills – and eventually latches on to a viable roster.  However, anybody who had a major label group album in 2009 that was promoted by one of the three biggest rap artists of the last 10 years does not qualify as a Freshman.

A$ap Ferg

He shows potential, but to be honest I think his appeal is limited and the whole A$ap Mob thing fell pretty darn flat after that abortion of a mixtape they put out in 2012.  There’s definitely room for him to continue to approve and he has a solid skill set, but he doesn’t have the appeal that Rocky does, and it seems to me that A$ap Yam has these guys under his thumb a little too much.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE proponent of quality control, but if that’s what Yams provides then he did a piss poor job on the A$ap mixtape in 2012.  Maybe the Mob really will shift their attention toward other artists in the collective in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether that attention will achieve the desired results.

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No end of the year list is ever quite as dubious as a “Best Songs of the Year” list.  Sure, even one’s list of favorite albums or mixtapes is entirely subjective, but there are millions of songs released on an annual basis, and to try and pare down that much music to a list of a hundred “best” songs at the end of the year is an impossible task, even for a committee.  For an individual it’s laughable.  Please acknowledge that there are easily a couple hundred songs I probably heard this year and have since forgot, and that there are probably a few thousand others I didn’t hear at all.  Nevertheless, here are the Undisputed Best 100 Rap Songs of 2012 (unless you were to ask me or anyone else again tomorrow).  I broke them into tiers rather than numbering them or putting them in entirely random order.

100 songs from 2012

Tier 1
Future (prod by Mike Will Made It) – Neva End
Young Giftz featuring Tree (prod by Tree) - Nino
SL Jones (prod by DJ Burn One) - Per Say
Kendrick Lamar featuring Gunplay (prod by THC) - Cartoons & Cereal
ScHoolboy Q featuring A$AP Rocky (prod by Best Kept Secret) - Hands On The WHeel
Curren$y (prod by Cardo) - Showroom
Future (prod by Mike Will Made It) - Turn On The Lights
Mikkey Halsted (prod by Traxster) - Butterfly Effect
Meek Mill (prod by Boi-1da) - Traumatized
GOOD Music (prod by Lifted, Mike Dean, Kanye West, & Hudson Mohawk) - Mercy
SpaceGhostPurrp & Robb Bank$ (prod by SpaceGhostPurrp) - Bend Ova Like That
Kendrick Lamar (prod by T-Minus) - Swimming Pools (Drank)
King Louie (prod by C-Sick) - Val Venis
2 Chainz (prod by DJ Mustard) - I’m Different
SpaceGhostPurrp (prod by SpaceGhostPurrp) - Tha Black God
Meek Mill featuring Big Sean (prod by Jahlil Beats) - Burn
Big K.R.I.T. (prod by Big K.R.I.T.) - Rich Dad, Poor Dad
Ka (prod by Ka) - Vessel
2Chainz - Crack
Lil Ugly Mane (prod by Shawn Kemp) - Throw Dem Gunz
Tree (prod by Tree) - All
Future featuring Diddy & Ludacris (prod by Sonny Digital) - Same Damn Time (remix)
Nas & Scarface (prod by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League) - Hip Hop
Amber London (prod by SpaceGhostPurrp) - Low MF Key
Kendrick Lamar featuring Dr. Dre (prod by Scoop DeVille) - The Recipe

2012 was a really great year for rap producers, probably a better year for producers than rappers, which seems to have been the trend for the last few years.  It is notable that 2012′s list sees the inclusion of several producers who work through primarily sample based means, several who work primarily in the field of original composition, and several who are equally adept in both fields or use interpolation to recreate previous compositions.  This strikes me as notable as I cannot think of a year where there was quite so much balance between the various modes of production.  2012 was also a tough year to select just 10 producers for this honor, as admittedly Roc Marciano, Ka, Harry Fraud, Willie Green, Aesop Rock and others had some very noteworthy production in 2012, but didn’t make the final cut.  As with the rappers, this is in no particular order.

Key Nyata “Suicide Capital” produced by Blue Sky Black Death

Blue Sky Black Death

It’s kind of amazing that it feels like this collective is still “proving themselves” in the industry given the number of years and dope projects they have to their name.  In 2012, BSBD dropped the final two pieces in the trilogy of projects they released with Nacho Picasso over a very tight time frame.  They then quickly retooled and put out projects with the new group Skull & Bones as well as Deniro Farrar before the end of the year.  They’ve got a ton of new material in store for 2013 as well, but it will be interesting to see if they can continue to garner some more major label placements like they did on eXquire’s EP this year.  Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but it would be amazing to hear BSBD do a full length project with a vocalist who could really float amid the ether of their production the way an Ethelwulf, Future, or Chief Keef could.  Future and Keef seem like a bit of a stretch, but an EP with Wulf seems like it could happen if the two sides came to the table.  Laptop A&Ring aside, there really weren’t many producers who were on BSBD’s level in 2012 so as always it will be interesting to see where they take their game in 2012.

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There have never been more divergent definitions for what makes a rapper good at rapping than there have been in 2012.   HB’s formula is made up primarily of technique (originality as well as execution), writing (complexity as well as relatability), and the degree to which a rapper can draw you into his or her own world.  None of this is a science, but there’s no doubt that the work of these 10 individuals stood out in 2012 (in no definite order).  Happy New Year.

Roc Marciano “76″

Roc Marciano

Roc Marcy’s ascension from the trenches to the parapets was pretty meteoric.  In hindsight, the ease with which he executed this transition over just a two year period has to have a lot to do with the decade plus he had in the game before   he really blessed the world at large with a proper solo debut.  Training alongside the likes of Busta Rhymes & Flipmode, developing his craft with the U.N. & Pete Rock, and polishing his solo skills for a few years before releasing Marcberg had a huge impact on his end game.  Roc’s and partner Ka’s journeys are the type that makes one chuckle at the plight of young rappers who have been at it for 12-18 months and complain that they are being slept on.  Come back and say that in a decade or two.  Regardless of the journey, Roc’s craft is just on a different level than all of his contemporaries at this stage.  He unloads vivid imagery and slick talk at a pace that even makes Ka seems a bit out of place alongside him at times.  In some ways it’s easier to compare Roc at this point in his career to Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines than it is to compare him to Meek Mill, Future, or Chief Keef.  It ain’t checkers it’s chess.

Emeralds,” “76,” “My Persona,” “We Ill

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cookin-soul-the-notorious-b-i-g-ready-for-xmas-mixtape-1

Well if you haven’t done your shopping yet, you’re probably not sitting in front of a computer screen at this point, as it’s too late for overnight delivery or any of those other sneaky procrastinating means we use to slide a Christmas gift under the front door at the last minute, but here are a few December treats that can be had at little (or no) cost for yourself or others.

Blue Sky Black Death dropped two albums on the last day of the Mayan calendar, just in case it was their last chance to share their music with the world before it imploded.  The more polished of the two projects is their previously unannounced collaboration with Deniro Farrar – who certainly worked to build a bigger name for himself in 2012 – a short seven track EP entitled Cliff of Death.  The project is well worth the seven bucks, BSBD is currently charging on their bandcamp page.  It’s always nice to see how BSBD will tailor their approach to a new artist and Deniro certainly vibes quite well with them.  If you’re even the slightest bit skeptical, as always with stuff released on bandcamp you can test drive (stream) it as much as you like before purchasing.

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The distinction between albums, LPs, EPs, and mixtapes was at it’s cloudiest point to date in 2012, and there is relatively no chance that any of those distinctions crystallize into something meaningful ever again.  The reality is that these days most rappers put together “projects,” and those projects either get released for free or they get released for a fee.  Among the projects that get released for free are those where a rapper raps over other people’s instrumentals or samples he or she has no intention of trying to clear.  There are also projects labeled as mixtapes or given away for free, that have entirely original production that get released for free and some of those projects ended up on Hardwood Blacktop’s Best 15 Albums of 2012 list.  To be honest, I’m not overly concerned with those distinctions anymore other than the fact that those of us who like to write about rap like to have a way to differentiate between certain types of releases for the purpose of end of the year lists and things like that.  So here are my picks for best mixtapes of 2012, by my own current loosely defined understanding of that term, which does not necessarily take into account whether a rapper deemed something a mixtape or not (but it might).  In general these projects are not of nearly as high quality as the top albums of 2012, otherwise they would’ve made that list, as you can see from that list there are a couple of “albums” that made the cut that most would classify as mixtapes (Sunday School, ParaphernaliaGod of Black EP, MMM Season).  If you’re keeping score at home, those projects would have been at the top of this list.

Meek Mill featuring Big Sean – “Burn”

1. Meek Mill - Dreamchasers 2 Download

Sometimes a rapper’s (Jadakiss, Fabolous, and Joe Budden just to name a few) game just translates a little bit better to the mixtape circuit than it does to album making.  Whether that has to do with them being better situated to making “street singles” than it does to them making tracks for the club or radio, or whether it has to do with the lack of record label oversight in the mixtape process, or whether the DJs they work with in the mixtape process are actually better A&R’s than their record label A&R’s, the end result is a consistently better free product vs. fee product. It’s too early to say that Meek Mill will always fall into that category as his major label debut Dreams & Nightmares certainly showed promise and contained some great individual songs (“Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” and “Traumatized”).  There is no doubt though that in 2012, Meek dropped another mixtape (he’s done this a few times before) that was better than a vast majority of the albums that came out in the same year.  Perhaps the most interesting part of Meek as a mixtape artist is that he’s not just someone who drops a flurry of battle-ready sixteens over a bunch of other people’s instrumentals. In fact, some of his best radio singles have been the result of his mixtape work over the last couple of years, hits like last year’s “House Party,” “Tupac Back” and “I’m A Boss” and this year’s “Burn,” “Amen,” and “Flexing” all came from his mixtapes or from the MMG compilations.  By contrast  only  from the first MMG compilation (a mixtape-like project) has really garnered the same buzz.  And while his label has pushed the hell out of “Young and Gettin’ It,” there’s just no way that’s a better direction for Meek than any of the aforementioned tracks.  Dreamchasers 2 was Meek’s most complete offering to date, bringing tracks suitable to almost every type of rap listener and packing plenty of that V-12 energy we’ve come to expect from Philly’s brightest star. While it does drag on a bit as songs begin to run together a little bit after the first nine or ten tracks on the mixtape, there may not have been a better example of hungry street-oriented rapping in 2012.

Choice Cuts: “Burn,” “Amen,” “Ready Or Not,” “A1 Everything

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