Posted by: Necci – May 07, 2012
While it's undoubtedly a cliché to suggest that less may be more, it's a lesson that a substantial number of hip-hop's practicioners could take to heart. And I'm not even referring solely to the rampant materialism and flash of commercial rap, because even the most underground rappers often fall into the converse but comparable trap of using a hundred words where one would suffice, and engaging in ideological and aesthetic pissing contests. And while this excess can sometimes produce compelling work, it's a rare and welcome treat to encounter a rapper who can reduce hip-hop to its core elements – not out of some essentialist retro impulse, but out of a true understanding of what makes the music great; the sort of solid, comprehensive creative understanding that can only be attained through decades worth of immersion and honing of ability. It's the sort of approach taken by Brownsville, New York rapper Ka on his most recent release, Grief Pedigree, one of the most compelling hip-hop albums in recent years.
While Grief Pedigree is Ka's second solo release, he's been active since the early 90s with groups like Natural Elements and Nightbreed. More recently, he has collaborated with GZA and Roc Marciano, but never really managed to garner a serious degree of widespread success. In a display of humility rarely found in hip hop, Ka has even suggested in interviews that his own work really wasn't up to par in his earlier years. Whether that's fair self-assessment or not, it's a refreshingly honest display of his own willingness to downplay bravado and highlight the struggles inherent to his growth as an artist, and his gradual chiseling out of a distinct style, one that's dense yet minimal, rich in its wordplay but subtle in its approach.
Ka produced Grief Pedigree himself, and this sonic backdrop is the most immediately noticeable facet of the album. There's a sparse, sinister quality to the beats, a darkly cinematic quality which never relies on obvious hooks or cheap tricks, only snippets of lithe, minor-key melodies. There are occasional detours into slightly funkier territory, but for the most part the songs are haunting and subdued. Over this, Ka weaves a deliberate, tightly-wound narrative, with dense clusters of phrases that evoke the despair, paranoia, and claustrophobia of the neighborhood that surrounded him during his upbringing. It's a stark and harrowing world, rife with violence and drugs, but the narratives, despite their familiarity with such topics, never stray too close to an endorsement of that way of life. Instead, they seem more like a reflection on the means by which people can escape society's degradation, and a celebration of this survival impulse.
It's a macrocosmic viewpoint that serves the songs well. While Ka as an individual factors into the songs' narratives, he treats his neighborhood almost as an extrapolation of himself, the creative and destructive impulses of his persona writ large. It's reflected in the steady stream of videos he released for Grief Pedigree (seven of the album's eleven songs were featured in videos), which consist almost exclusively of scenes of his neighborhood, interwoven with shots of Ka himself, generally either staring straight at the camera as if in conversation with the viewer or looking pensively off into the distance, suggesting an emotional terrain inextricable from the physical landscape in which it finds a home. It's a searing criticism and a love letter rolled into one; a poetry of desperation, and one of the strongest examples in recent years of what hip hop can do right.
By Graham Scala