November 27, 2021

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Ka: A Martyr’s Reward Album Review


The art of Ka is quiet. He raps in a smoky mutter, subdued yet trenchant, and over the last decade, his largely self-produced beats have molted into wispy, drumless loops. But listen closely and you’ll be rewarded with rich networks of detail that bore into the realities of a 49-year-old’s neglected Brownsville neighborhood. This music is often likened to audiobooks, literature, epic poetry, which is to say that it defiantly demands your full attention. And as the zeitgeist has centered steely, East Coast formalism the last couple years from the Griselda crew and the Alchemist, Ka seems to be receiving plenty of it.

On 2020’s world-weary Descendants Of Cain, Ka negotiated pathways to harrowing memories, casting jail bids upstate and “brothers killing brothers” in the frame of that doomed biblical allegory. The songs had a reporter’s eye—“I live this vivid shit, I ain’t that creative,” goes one line—but they felt like wounds healing. Through Cain and Abel, and Orpheus and the Sirens, he’s grappled with big, existential questions about what we learn versus what we inherit; how, in an environment designed to destroy your existence, family extends far past blood; and how traditional moral codes are stretched and distorted while living in the belly of the beast.

That symbolism builds itself into the intrigue of his music, which at times, can deflate without a compelling frame. But on his latest album, A Martyr’s Reward, Ka scales it back, instead coming to terms with his growing status as a leader and role model in hip-hop and his local community. One of rap’s most inventive stylists surfaces from his memories to reflect on himself and his vocation for a moment, transforming Reward into a searing, soulful gem in his catalog.

Where on past records, Ka would often play a slightly detached narrator, here he inserts himself into his own mythologizing as a kind of truth-bearer or guiding light, breaking up his dense lyricism with gnomic screeds and calls to action. This clarity allows Ka to twist his tales in compelling new directions. On “I Need All That,” he plainly unpacks everything that’s been stolen from Black people: “My braids, my waves, my gold/My chance, my dance, my stance, my soul.” This may come off as preachy in another rapper’s hands, but Ka stakes these claims on needing to rap to survive, seeing the world through the music he grew up on, losing friends who couldn’t turn a new leaf. He doesn’t sound grumpy; he sounds exhausted.

That tiredness sinks into the next song, the heaving “Peace Peace Peace,” which marries Ka’s mournful singing to the soul of Tennessee singer-songwriter Joi, famous for her work with the Dungeon Family. Together they sing of seeking peace, their voices swelling and soaring over a spare bassline and clattering drums, before Ka unspools line after line trying to make peace with his upbringing: “The saddest fact: they stole my youth, wish I had it back.” Joi’s contributions to spiritual songs like OutKast’s “Liberation” highlight one of Ka’s own strengths: his deep, almost religious reverence for culture, craft, and humanity. The best Ka songs feel like prayer, dirges, incantations, and A Martyr’s Reward is full of them.

This album doles out the meticulously constructed rap verses and dust bowl soundscapes you can reliably expect from every Ka album. Like a face-scrunching spitter from the New York mixtape circuit, he finds ways to coax science, rap history, animals, and whatever else he’s been reading about into dystopian images. “Cops got us under a microscope, to make sure we see cells/Know my first vitamin was iron, but I just wanted to be/beat/B 12,” he raps on “I Notice,” connecting ideas of crime, surveillance, and technology in one deft move. On that same song, he later cuts away all the fat to meta-analyze: “I noticed the onus was on me…to speak the truth.”

From early records like 2012’s dark Grief Pedigree onwards, Ka has gradually burrowed deeper and deeper into a more mystical, more intimate musical universe. You can hear the drums slowly melt into the background, and the synths and guitars froth a little more. On A Martyr’s Reward, the beats dissolve into some of his finest, serving his often breathless rapping as a Tibetan healing bowl might guide a meditation. Ka handles most of the production himself, veering between ominous tones and chintzy, major-key loops, but brings in long-time collaborator Preservation for the haunting “Subtle,” and Brooklyn rapper-producer Navy Blue for “We Livin’ / Martyr.”

Navy also delivers a staggering verse on that song about emerging from his darkest days, and their steady working relationship highlights the growing influence Ka exerts on a newer generation of underground rap. It makes every aside about going to sleep hungry, staying true to your art, and choosing brothers who’ll bleed with you feel like a lesson passed on. “Having nothing gave me everything,” goes the somber refrain of the final song, the sample glowing with the weird joy of something off Ghostface’s Ironman. It might sound romantic, but in context, A Martyr’s Reward reads as a spellbinding affirmation for a man who’s defied all odds, and a beacon for those who need direction.


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