Brownsville rapper/producer Ka takes his time. Though he’s been writing rhymes since 1993, spending time with groups like Natural Elements and Nightbreed, he didn’t release his first solo album until 2008′s hard-headed Iron Works, following it up with 2012′s introspective Grief Pedigree. In a genre that often values youth and urgency over wisdom and longevity, Ka feels less like an aberration and more like a mistake. How could someone this good take so long to leave his mark? The answer is complicated but it can be boiled down to this: He needed time. In a fascinating interview from 2012 the Brooklyn rapper compared himself to Nas, highlighting the major difference between their careers. “The shit he was saying as a teenager is on par with a 40 year old man right now,” he said. “I wasn’t that dude, I had to practice, get my shit together.”
Ka has his shit together now, as evidenced by The Night’s Gambit, his latest collection of sparse, pointillistic hip-hop. Not only does he have his shit together, he now carries himself with the unassuming grace of a master practicing his craft with little regard for the outside world and its fickle approval. Think Tim Duncan blocking a shot. Think a chess master schooling teenagers in the park. Think a bird hunting its prey. Despite the humble trappings of Ka’s delivery (diligent, mumbly, Raekwon-ish) and his production techniques (dusky, sample-heavy, ’90s indebted), there’s a staggering level of technical precision and lyrical virtuosity on display here. Like Roc Marciano’s similarly backwards-gazing 2012 album, Reloaded, this is a unsparingly tough and strikingly assured record of pain and perseverance.
Though it’s packed with heavy themes and dense wordplay—the chess pun of the title only hints at Ka’s obsession with finding double and triple meanings in words—the album wears its ambitions lightly. Where Marciano’s raps often have the taut intensity of a blood-stained crime novel, Ka’s verses feel like they were drawn from a tortured dream journal. “You Know It’s About” opens the record with clicks and clatters, a patient death rattle that grows more intense as Ka’s murmur comes into focus, hitting words like “gutter” and “butter” with a palpable indignation and sense of purpose. His own dedication and work ethic is often his greatest subject, whether he’s talking about his spiritual life (“Our Father”) or his musical pursuits (“Nothing Is”). “Once you find your lane you can’t cruise,” he raps. “When you define the game you can’t lose.”
That type of unwavering conviction extends to the self-produced beats, which often consist of a loop repeated until it becomes a rhythmic mantra. Instead of being monotonous, the production is hypnotic and immersive, slowly revealing its complexities after multiple listens. Certain moments stand out at first: the ominous Undertaker bells of “Peace Akhi,” the evaporating synth vapors and quivering porn guitars of “Jungle.” But as you listen, seemingly similar songs take on new dimensions as you notice things like the bobbing organ of “Knighthood” and the luxurious sweep of “I’m Ready.” These choices fit the tone of the album, which wavers between fractured nostalgia and spiritual contemplation. Ka’s world can seem so hermetic and sealed off, his lyrics washed of modern allusions and name-drops, that it’s almost confusing to hear him rattle off a laundry list of classic hip-hop albums on the album’s GZA-like riff “Off The Record.” It’s one of the few moments on the album that bears the mark of the outside world.
Despite his throwback aesthetic and his old-school marketing tactics, Ka is undoubtably a product of hip-hop’s recession era. He may not be defined by the internet like many of his peers—he’s known for selling his album outside the location of the now closed Fat Beats record shop—but his earnest, ownership-focused, DIY approach connects him to the rapper owned labels of the past and the budding online entrepreneurs of the future. That doesn’t mean he’s purely an isolated figure. Where younger rappers like Joey Bada$$ and the Underachievers have mined the textures and cadence of New York ’90s rap, Ka’s minimalistic take on hip-hop has carried on that era’s most important factor: its spirit of innovation. And armed with that spirit, he’s surpassed his younger peers who are still getting their shit together. Checkmate.