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Ka - Descendants of Cain Music Album Reviews

The Brooklyn rapper moves carefully between knotty verses and blunt lines to make some the most immersive and exhilarating songs of his career.

Ka raps as if he’s pulled you into the hallway to talk business. His vocals are often hushed but always forceful, like he’s speaking in a stage whisper and the stage is collapsing. The beats he raps on, his own productions or sourced from a tight circle of collaborators, do away with nearly all extraneous elements—and often with elements that no one would consider “extraneous,” like drums. There are complicated lyrical passages, but some of Ka’s phrasing is disarmingly simple: He’ll say he “saw too much to have blind faith,” or describe the Brownsville, Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth as “the bottom” where “all the tops is slung.” It’s this drive toward the essential that makes Ka’s music singular. He cuts away the sinew from each line, leaving vivid detail and bits of moral code that he will then jam against one another, building a strange latticework of jagged, interlocking bits that he can use to explain or disorient as he sees fit.
Descendants of Cain is the sixth album Kaseem Ryan has released since 2012. Before then, he had taken a job with the New York Fire Department and lost touch with music. But the Ka that re-emerged with 2012’s rewardingly insular Grief Pedigree was inspired, and in the years since, he’s released a string of LPs that has confirmed him as one of the preeminent stylists of his generation. (Although on the fringes in many ways, Ka was big enough by 2016 to be smeared on the front page of the New York Post for his lyrics critical of police.) There are no giant leaps or sharp left turns in his repertoire; there are grooves worn deeper and deeper, facades stripped away.
There have been moments when this near-tunnel vision has seemed limiting; 2018’s Orpheus vs. the Sirens, a collaboration with the Los Angeles producer Animoss under the name Hermit and the Recluse, is an expertly made record that at times feels like the annual Ka album, assembled from a trusty blueprint. Cain, by contrast, exhilarates. Where Orpheus’ Greek-myth motif was an attempt to look at the personal and spiritual struggles Ka often writes about from an abstracted angle, the Biblical story of Cain and his offspring here evokes unshakable feelings about what it means to be damned, what’s learned versus what’s in your blood, and whether clean hands are a luxury everyone can afford. It includes some of the most striking writing of Ka’s career—the knottier verses and the blunter ones, too—and is utterly immersive, whole lifetimes of fear and pain and death and regeneration condensed into 33 minutes.

The Biblical allusions on Cain make the Brooklyn of Ka's memory sound like a fallow land not expected to produce survivors. On “Patron Saints,” he strings simple threads into a complex web of lepers and protectors from his formative years: the tycoons who “moved in vests,” the caregivers who “stole everything we needed.” No one here would be without blame in the eyes of the NYPD, but nearly everyone is daring and principled in his or her own way. “Our yogis did stretches upstate,” he raps, “I saw Lancelots at round tables cutting eighths.” At the song’s end, he does away with the entendre: “Our heroes sold heroin.”

That frankness serves Ka well throughout Cain. The penultimate song, “Old Justice,” opens, simply, “We was living in the living room.” But other tracks move slyly from childhood games to concealed weaponry. See “Unto the Dust,” where Ka remembers that while:

...y’all played the dozens
My favorite cousins spent they youth in prisons
They names known, came home
Now the house got two religions
‘Peace be with you,’ ‘Wa’Alaikum-Salaam’
?Make sure that piece be with you, laced in your palm.

It’s that type of advice—grave but necessary—that guides Ka through one-half of the stories remembered here, and is dispensed by him in the other. Toward the end of “Saints,” he raps about his father shooting a man, then tossing him the gun to dispose of. “He knew how he grew me,” Ka raps, as he flees the scene to deny prosecutors “Exhibit A.” “I was raised to age a few years in a day.”

Cain is a dynamic listen, despite relying on a consistent sound palate: somber pianos, strings, all made to sound like the denouement of a Western you catch on cable at 3 a.m. The exception is the dazzlingly weird beat for “P.R.A.Y.,” which sounds as if a broken elevator’s doors are being pried apart in stereo. Ka has never deployed a wide arsenal of flows or vocal tones; instead of seeming flat, his affectless voice gives the impression of seriousness, of persistence. This is most rewarding on the closing song, “I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev),” where he writes to his wife, mother, and late friend with a touching vulnerability, but delivers the words with a steely remove, as if he has to gird himself to get through each verse in one piece.

For all the peril of Cain—walks to subway stops that have to be chaperoned, summers full of murder that just won’t end—it retains a strange optimism, in the notion that principled living is its own salvation. It is also something of a capstone on the rapper’s career. The album, and Ka’s entire creative project, is best summed up by the chorus on “Land of Nod.” “You can tell I’m in fact a native,” he raps, “I live this vivid shit—I ain’t that creative.” This is the great trick of Ka’s music: For all the technical wizardry, the innovation in writing style and sound design, he’s made his work seem like the natural, insuppressible product of the blocks that raised him.

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