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Cultural Capital

Ka’s History Repeats Itself

Ever-widening inequality tears New York's character to pieces and plows it under the ground—and that's where Ka's new album finds him.

11:39 AM EDT on October 10, 2022

Ka in “Ascension” (brownsvilleka/YouTube)

While other underground rappers move on up to A-List producers after years of prestige work, Brooklyn's Ka just keeps making his world smaller. He still writes and produces his own albums, releases them through his own label, and they can only be downloaded from his website. His new album "Languish Arts/Woeful Studiess"—his seventh—continues his stolid, veteran soldier mentality, built up from surviving the cold Brooklyn streets of the '90s. 

It's the Brownsville rapper's sound—girthy but warm—that reminds me of my grandfather, Kevin "K.J." Johnson. "Papa," as we called him, talked like he was telling war stories to kids on his lap. His voice came from his stomach and Papa had been everywhere. He was a Korean War veteran and that voice is what I always remember—years of, "Uh, Jayson" when I was running roughshod all over the house or telling stories or about how much he adored his grandchildren. Papa died last year. The way he spoke represented someone who had been through war and several health scares. But he didn't seem to have wasted one day of his life. It's his voice that was really his hallmark, like the rapper Ka's army-vet-that-took-three-shots-of-Tennessee-whiskey voice. 

Another one of Ka's strengths—he's also a patient artist. He's never rushed. To say that he raps with a staccato would be understating it. He raps like he's speaking slowly to a baby. He's a leader, a teacher for the broke and confused, making every word count like Democrat votes in southern states. He's a man of great stoicism, with a workman-like personality fit for a 50-year-old New York City firefighter—which he is. (The rap veteran likes to keep the fact that he's also an FDNY captain on the low, after the Post tried to ruin his day job.) Because of Ka's voice and density on each song, he demands your full attention. He's a rapper whose music is a story time at a youth camp: Everyone hangs onto every sentence attentively.

"Languish Arts/Woeful Studies" is broken up into two parts, and it has the feel of a saga. Like 2021's "A Martyr's Reward," the new album is personal, but this time he's less focused on life lessons and more concerned with the trauma that those lessons come from. 

The result is that Ka is currently making the rawest music of his career. On "No Reservations," he says, "Fortitude, had to go kill when no one brought us food, wasn’t from a time or refined, all we saw was crude." Every song Ka makes is from a time that's already an artifact, an old school New York—the one full of infested buildings like those that my grandfather used to work in. Before the fetishization of Timbaland boots and bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, the city was full of pain and war stories. "It ain't trap, I brung escapes," he says on "We Not Innocent." All his stories contextualize his present—this is what brought him here, and what he still lives with. It’s not some backstory he created five minutes ago on social media. 

"Eat" is as gentle as a mom humming her child to sleep. "Dedicate my life to studying, every lesson I share it," says Ka. The song is intricate and feels like you're in the room with him. Listening to Ka makes me feel like I have that intimate connection with him—he's a mentor without being too heavy on the lessons. Sometimes Ka reminds me of "The Fix"-era Scarface. The rules of his life function as dogma. At a time when underground rap and surrealist and drumless rap are getting the coverage, Ka is a relic of a different era, but one that's still worth holding on to. (I don't say this out of empty nostalgia—see my Black Star review for Hell Gate for relics we should get rid of). 

Ever-widening inequality tears New York's character to pieces and plows it under the ground. While Mayor Mixy Adams defunds public schools to fund further NYPD sweeps, New York's identity becomes a hollow, commodified show of "Bing Bong" chants and New York Nico caricatures marketed to transplants looking to passively consume a little bit of "authentic" New York.

A more real truth lies within the music of Ka. In its quiet, steady reckoning, there's a shared reality—a unifying politic. Even if his own experience is grounded in '90s Brooklyn, there's a lot there even if you weren't there—the themes are real enough to make sense. For a second, Ka allows you to be inside the New York that's no longer here, to feel it, and to mourn it as well. Without driving into nostalgia, he allows for the decimation of the working-class New York spirit to be his character. And it's not coming from a misanthrope—God knows that Ka would teach anyone who needs it. The gaze, and parables, are for us. And Ka believes that history repeats itself. The politics of Giuliani and Bloomberg come back—we're living in it. Ka’s still committed to moving ahead as a community, not cutting anyone out ("I talk to you like a old uncle, that's my nuance”)—the act of being there for a small group of folks that probably wouldn't have a voice left, if not for those like him. 

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