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The Last Underground Rapper

The Brownsville rapper Ka is among the greatest rappers of the last decade. He is also among the most understated. His densely packed and stoic raps are as light-averse and complex as mycelium, and he hasn’t gone out of his way to seek the sun, either. The term “underground” has grown meaningless in the Internet age, when the most obscure artist can connect directly with her audience, but few others rappers still feel as deeply connected to the word as Ka does—not simply as a musician operating outside of the industry but one for whom keeping a low profile is inherent to the mission.

Ka became a presence on the New York rap scene during its most fertile period, in the early nineties—first as part of the group Natural Elements, and then as half of the duo Nightbreed. In Natural Elements, which had a rotating crew of members, it seemed like space was at a premium and time on the mike was not to be wasted. Looking back, Ka has characterized himself as someone who was still developing amid a competitive atmosphere, the weakest in a litter of hungry dogs. The group got signed to Tommy Boy shortly after he departed. (“That’s how wack I was: as soon as I left they got a record deal,” Ka told The Fader, in 2016.) There was greater balance in Nightbreed, and he’d honed his skill by then, in the mid-nineties, but little separated the duo’s basement sound from other groups such as Mobb Deep and Black Moon.

For a time, Ka put rhyming aside, and, in 1999, he became a New York City firefighter. Joining the department provided the structure that he had been looking for. Changing careers also allowed him to dodge ageist rap expectations. Few rappers break through after thirty; even fewer have any meaningful impact in middle age. Ka quit rapping altogether in 2003. After nearly a decade of vigilance and service in the F.D.N.Y., he was on track to make captain, but something was missing. The raps never stopped pouring into his head. So, with renewed vigor, he took another crack at recording. The album he developed, “Iron Works,” fell into the hands of the Wu-Tang Clan master GZA, and the two recorded a track together, called “Firehouse,” in 2008—a full-on, three-verse Ka showcase for the GZA album “Pro Tools.” Within the song’s lyrics, Ka seemed to divulge his game plan and mindset: “​​Slow and steady win the race, step aside, let the tortoise by,” and “People call on me, ’cause I’m ready when it’s urgent. / Too much grace to tremble, hand steady as a surgeon.” Steadiness and patience were the keys.

In the thirteen years since “Iron Works,” Ka has put together an astonishing independent hip-hop career. His music is mostly self-produced; for many years, he paid for studio sessions with money made while working overtime as a firefighter, and mailed out his records to fans, as a one-man shop. (For now, the only official way to listen to his new album online is to purchase a zip of the WAV files on his Web site.) That ethic—the late-shift, side-hustle, legion-of-one style—feels baked into the music itself. Along with the Long Island rapper-producer Roc Marciano, Ka has preserved a certain strain of bars-first New York City rap that prioritizes its stark, ascetic music-making practice as much as its hardscrabble tone and acerbic lyricism. Ka’s voice is gruff, yet he raps discreetly, as if recounting secrets under his breath. The verses themselves are almost like incantations muttered in code; it takes intent listening to puzzle them out. His wordplay is its own sort of quicksand, shiftily multisyllabic and crowded by entendre. But he is a philosopher above all: his lyrical feats are performed in pursuit of wisdom.

Blood-soaked tales of pain are at the core of Ka’s raps, which revolve around learning from the past and embracing one’s duty. Not everyone is lucky enough to see forty-nine, and Ka takes the opportunity on his sixth solo album, “A Martyr’s Reward,” to reflect and absorb and observe. He’s fixated on recompense, what is owed—by culture vultures, by cops, by the American government. He considers what he owes to others: those he grew up with and those he now performs for. “Trying to provide, fruitfully, for those few that root for me. / This music used to be how I got my news as youth, truthfully. / Back when they did it for the good of the hood, exclusively,” he raps, on “I Need All That.” Ka comes to reclaim all that was taken by appropriators and opportunists, an idea reiterated succinctly on “Subtle”: “They owe a debt that reparations can’t entirely remedy.” He isn’t here to collect what’s due so much as to redeem—to vindicate those worked over by swindlers, and to set these matters straight for posterity.

Ka once said that he doesn’t see himself as a producer, that he just wants to write and be spoken of among the “great MCs,” and his approach to music emphasizes that intention. These are songs as literature, each verse an inscription on a tablet. Few rappers are more writerly. Beats are almost an afterthought, constructed around the verse. The songs here are full of the grave, meticulously phrased, and calmly dispensed scripture that Ka has perfected over the years, and the composition—with its sharp realism and chilling composure—rivals that of his previous album, “Descendants of Cain.” The production is mostly drumless, but the innermost rhythms come from the rhymes themselves, and the mutable pulse of Ka’s street hymns makes him a singular chronicler.

“A Martyr’s Reward” crescendos to a three-song finale—“Enough Praise / Recovering,” “Be Grateful,” and “Having Nothin’ ”—which imparts the hard lessons learned on Ka’s long journey to becoming a cult figure. The song titles tell the story: a savant, humbled by his career trajectory, doubles down on his craft, comes to appreciate all that the struggle has taught him, and continues to build. “Having nothing gave me everything I need,” Ka repeats, on the closing track. Despite all the shadows that dance across his sparse canvases, bearing the silhouettes of scenes that he’d rather not remember but can never forget, the revelations on the album are powered by communal connections, to people like Mimi, Moms, Kev, and other clique members left nameless. Throughout, Ka talks of his obligations: pulling everybody up, reaching the youth. When rapping about giving back to his community—protecting, teaching, and working—he has never sounded more certain of his purpose.


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