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”