One of the most famous scenes in the landmark television show The Wire takes place in the early part of the first season. Three characters–who at this point the first-time viewer is likely to think of as nothing more than drug dealers–sit around a chessboard as one teaches the others how the game is played. The scene, though imbued with symbolism and foreshadowing, isn’t heavy-handed in the least. As they learn about chess, the two younger characters compare the pieces to the people in their lives in a way that makes complete and utter sense. The scene is razor sharp–no bullshit.
It’s no wonder then that the Brownesville rapper Ka scooped up a snippet from that scene for a song on his new album The Night’s Gambit. In Ka’s music too there are no distractions to be found, no ornamentation to get in the way of a driving, fully-realized narrative. Every lyric has its use.
“I’m sure some of the fat is on it on the first, second, third edit,” Ka says over the phone in the midst of fulfilling a flurry of album release obligations. “But by the 15th, 20th edit, there should be no fat on that piece.”
The painstaking care and attention to detail he takes is obvious in Ka’s music, and it’s started to win him accolades from a fan base starved for rap in which writing is a clear priority. Since Jay-Z began popularizing the idea that the great ones don’t commit their verses to paper, the premium on rap writing has gone way down. Add that to a production culture that has shifted away from lyric-friendly boom-bap and it’s no wonder that Ka, who has become an artistic rarity, is receiving the attention he is.
“To me, Ka is like a noir writer–a rap Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. He’s hardboiled,” New York Magazine pop critic Jody Rosen says when I emailed him to discuss the rapper. “I love how unhurried he is, how calm and deadpan his flow is. He puts you in a trance.”
Even discussing rap writing like this is hugely unfashionable. An early aughts schism between mainstream and underground hip-hop made “lyrical” a word that was synonymous with tedium. But Ka’s music is not Slaughterhouse-style punchline porn, nor is it the pedantic sermonizing of a Talib Kweli. It is evocative storytelling, gangster rap as a facet of a three-dimensional life rather than glorified hustle. Like The Wire, Ka’s music begs comparison to other genres. His songs are paintings, short stories, or as Ka himself puts it on the standout track “Jungle,” “not a verse, but a work of art.”
It wasn’t always this easy for the rapper, now in his forties. Though Ka received a major boost in attention from his last album, Grief Pedigree, he had tempered his expectations.
“I’ve been doing art for 20-something years and no one was any the wiser,” he says. “This is the third album you’ve heard from me, but it’s probably my 17th.”
But Pedigree got a modest amount of attention, due in part to its status as a an album that grew on listeners, and a guest appearance by Roc Marciano, another rap-purist.
When I asked Ka what changed after that album, I could hear the smile in his voice.
If you order from me and you live in NYC, and it’s not too out the way, I’ll try my best to bring it personally
— Ka (@BrownsvilleKa) July 16, 2013
“Now I know, I got a gift. All those years of practicing, practicing, practicing–I know that the Most High shined a light on me and was like ‘OK, you wont give up, here.’ He sprinkled me with whatever he sprinkled me with and now I know where I’m at. Before, I got no sprinkles, man. And I know that. I was garbage!”
That’s not false modesty. Ka’s humility is something that’s commented on by every interviewer that meets him. Alex Piyevsky, a prominent rap blogger, in the midst of a comprehensive interview with Ka last year wrote that “his modesty about his music … extends almost to a fault, occasionally maybe bordering on mild shyness.”
But it seems that the success of Grief Pedigree, and the initial reception to The Night’s Gambit may have changed something. You might not expect it of someone so humble, but when I ask Ka what his ambition is, he gives the answer that you want to hear from one of your favorite rappers. “I want to be the illest ever. I want people saying, ‘You want lyrics, you want something that’s really, really ill? You need to go and listen to Ka.'”