Thursday, July 25, 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: Ka - The Night's Gambit

It goes without saying that life in the inner city has always been a central subject for rap, ever since its earliest iterations in the bombed-out South Bronx of the late 1970s. As with any topic though, individual artists approach it from a myriad of angles; some turn the streets into a nihilistic cartoon, unapologetically embracing a criminal lifestyle (or at least the trappings of one), while others search for root causes, pointing with righteous indignation at police and politicians. Assuming the MC in question has got the skills to back it up, there's nothing inherently wrong with either approach, but there's more truth in synthesizing the two, as Ka does on his superb new The Night's Gambit

Ka, Brooklyn born MC and former member of the Natural Elements crew, has been at it since the early 90s, carving out an impressive underground reputation but largely remaining off the radar of the mainstream. By all outward indications, that suits Ka just fine; there's very little ego on The Night's Gambit, being more concerned with the realities of urban survival than impressing anybody. There's some gritty, noir-ish romance here, right from the dope-slinging album opener "You Know It's About", but balancing it out is an omnipresent sense of guilt, anxiety and paranoia. The toughness of a track like "Soap Box" may sound enticing, but moments later the ominous "Peace Akhi" reveals the pain lurking underneath.

The unflinching, just-the-facts monotone of Ka's delivery is perfectly suited to the subject matter, the voice of someone who's seen it all and has the scars to show for it, but just as important is the production, all slow burn, borderline abstract beats abutting evocative samples culled from Bruce Lee films and The Wire. As tense as the album is, it's not a difficult listen, thanks to his mastery of head-bobbing hip hop fundamentals. Ka pays tribute to his influences on the crate-digging finale, which name checks countless rap classics, from Paid in Full, Criminal Minded and Strictly Business to Ready to Die and Illmatic. The Night's Gambit may not be among them, but it comes close. 

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