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In the last calendar year, a number of mainstream rap releases have drawn inspiration from theological doctrine: Rick Ross’s 'God Forgives, I Don’t'; The Game’s 'Jesus Piece'; J Cole’s 'Born Sinner'; Jay-Z’s 'Magna Carta Holy Grail' and, most notably, Kanye West’s 'Yeezus', were all cloaked in a superficial veil of spiritualism. The religious imagery packaged with these albums was intended to either convey persecution, assert an air of omnipotence, or simply just sound cool and intriguing. 'The Night’s Gambit', New York rapper Ka’s second album in as many years, takes on a similarly deistic tone – but unlike the aforementioned major label roll-outs, his writing is ambitious enough to articulate faith and moral dilemma in a compelling language.
“King’s gambit” is a centuries-old chess strategy rooted in the theory that every piece on the board, sans kingship, should be considered an expendable resource for martial gain. Throughout the album, Ka depicts his community — the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York — as collateral damage in America’s enduring drug war. He’s willing to risk life, limb and freedom for an opportunity to “own the night.” This sentiment was echoed, verbatim in fact, on his previous full-length effort, 'Grief Pedigree', but here the hardship and anguish is considerably more persuasive. Transient narratives are told from the vantage point of a cunning pawn, whose only hope for survival is otherworldly intervention.
The album’s strongest moments arrive when Ka conflates gospel rap with gangster rap, doling out fire and brimstone in the name of perceived righteousness. Peace Ahki is the most surgical performance of his career. Homegrown idioms and ‘hood parables are bolstered by dialogue from an intense chess scene featured in Guy Ritche’s 2011 Sherlock Holmes reboot. He insists he’s “destined to pop the gun” immediately prior to conceding that “God deserves the glory.” The lead single, Our Father, asks God to turn a blind eye to a newfound blood vendetta. On a slightly more passive note, aided only by guitar strums and trumpet stabs, Ka laments his struggle to tame and suppress ancestral sin on Barring the Likeness. He stands on the shoulders of bible-thumping street rappers like Pastor Troy and Sunz of Man, but his approach is more thoughtful and soft-spoken. Ka's threats occasionally show menace, but only due to how calculated and self-assured they sound.
Ka – Our Father
After 35 minutes of unrelenting innovation, the album unfortunately closes with low hanging fruit. Off The Record is an ode to the music that influenced Ka’s own artistic development, predictably name-checking a litany of hip-hop’s canonised works. It borrows from the GZA school of personification, where inanimate objects or institutions are seamlessly woven into crime sagas. While the song is certainly well-executed, it’s disappointing to hear such a forward-thinking album capped with what amounts to dressing up like the past.
To say 'The Night's Gambit' is a challenging listen is an understatement. It’s almost entirely devoid of humor, happiness and snare drums. But that’s to be expected: Ka has always had an esoteric disposition. It’s telling that he’s only entertained four guest features — half as many as many as he’s bothered to solicit — since appearing on GZA’s 'Protools' LP back in 2006. Meanwhile, his underground contemporaries regularly clear as many cash grabs on a slow week. But sparsity is perhaps Ka’s greatest asset. He’s been one of the few rappers savvy enough to retain a shred of mystique en route to acquiring a cult following. Luckily, he seems less concerned with cultivating a rabid fan base than recording projects that could leave a lasting impression. With this outing, Ka makes good on the latter aspiration, reaffirming his place among the genre’s elite writers and avant-garde producers.
Iron Works release 'The Night's Gambit' on the 13th July 2013.
Ka – Off The Record