Ka – The Night’s Gambit [Review]

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Ka doesn’t rap full-time, but he drops more gems than your favorite rapper. As a FDNY fire captain, he treats music as passion-driven side hustle. He’s light years ahead of your typical hobbyist, however. He didn’t just pick this up yesterday, he’s been around hip hop since its creation. After several attempts at a rap career with Natural Elements and Nightbreed, he finally went solo, slowly carving the distinct sound he has today. Even as an old head, Ka still raps, with unwavering persistence, and it’s clear his story is one of perseverance. In his Red Bull Academy interview, he stated he doesn’t mind being the 40 year old guy who raps; as long as he’s still nice with it, what can people really tell him? It’s a stark contrast to how we view a rap career; it’s a young man’s game like the NBA; when you see yourself pushing a certain age, you gotta throw in the towel. But Ka’s defiance of ageism is genuine because he really does this; Ka and “washed” aren’t synonymous. There’s been recent talk of “grown up raps” after Jay-Z’s 4:44 released. Many argued Phonte and Black Thought as rappers who do it better, but we shouldn’t overlook Ka. He gives us a look inside the mind of a man with survivor’s guilt. I know Honor Killed The Samurai is his most recent work, but I’ll explore it in the future. The Night’s Gambit was my true introduction to Ka, so it’s only right I write about it.

Ka’s creative approach is methodical and you can tell he doesn’t rush the process. This makes sense when you not only pen your own bars but lace your own beats, as well. He doesn’t make songs for you to groove to. Instead, he paints a backdrop for storytelling. A master lyricist with an ear for production gives him an edge. It’s all about timing and tension, instead of being dynamic or attention-seeking, which is expected from rappers. I can see people initially writing him off because of this. His quiet voice and steady cadence requires you to really listen and digest the words. But this is a good thing. Ka’s in-the-field experience makes the lyrics worth paying attention to. They come off less as glorified crime tales and more like guilt-driven war stories; he’s a veteran of the streets who survived the crack epidemic, what do you expect him to write about?

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Ka kicks off The Night’s Gambit in Wu-Tang-esque fashion with an Enter The Dragon audio clip on You Know It’s About. It’s gritty with stomping drums and the Black Sabbath-sampled guitar riff sounds intense. Our Father is a profound song about Ka on the verge of of getting revenge for a fallen ally and telling God to look away. His self-awareness really shines on here. These tortured recollections will shake your soul – if you still have one.

“Hollows hit my man, they sparked my brethren / Hurtin’, so I’m certain won’t be good today / All I ask Lord, is Lord look away”

Then there is Jungle with its cinematic blues sample. A song about survival of the fittest. From selling drugs to holding heat on the cold murky streets of old war-torn NY, he gives us the raw truth of pre-gentrified Brownsville.

A Malcom X audio clip about house and field negroes opens the door for the funky Soap Box, with Metal Clergy brethren Roc Marciano. This is another joint that shows their natural synergy on wax. We need that Metal Clergy album asap!

A personal favorite, and the main song I send to people, when putting people on to Ka, is Peace Ahki. It’s eerie and filled with enough tension to give you goosebumps. After a calculated audio clip about D’Angelo’s chess metaphor from The Wire, Ka opens up with the powerful line “Pistols the only piece I see / It’s war here but still tell my niggas “Peace ahki”. What made me flip was when he referenced back to the The Wire with “I play chess but my past is checkered.” He then finishes the song with “Survived the murder story, words are gory. It’s protocol, I owe it all, God deserve the glory.” It’s one of the songs you have to let digest for greater appreciation.

The final track, Off The Record, pays homage to classic hip hop albums. The wordplay is astounding, referencing the titles and themes of these albums in chronological fashion. He references everything from Brand Nubian, to Beastie Boys to A Tribe Called Quest and Wu Tang.

“Fear of a black planet so they go in leary, For knots we can’t be stopped, that’s low end theory.”

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I appreciate Ka, not only for his music, but his transparency as a person. When I listen to his music, it’s like being in those cold war-torn New York City streets. As a kid who grew up in a gentrified NYC, I enjoy hearing stories from the past. These stories help us understand history better. The crack epidemic is behind us now, but the long-term effects still hold weight.

In Rotation 8/4

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Cameron Butler – Voyage To Ataraxia (2017)

I started paying attention to Cameron Butler last year, when he released his loose single, Fight The Funk. Since then, he has shown tremendous growth, not only as a rapper but as a producer, songwriter, and mixing engineer. He’s a prime example of how well DIY can work if you put in the man hours. He wears many hats, but his execution is always clean. VTA is a solid album from front to back. His versatility shines bright, going from psychedelic tracks like Brain – which is one of the best intros I’ve heard this year – to the Caribbean-infused Green. Then you have joints like Mastermind which make you feel like you time traveled back to the early 2000’s when The Neptunes were at their peak. If you dug Tyler The Creator’s new album, give this one a spin; The carefree, feel good vibes are heavy here.

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Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge (2017)

Roc Marciano’s been moving in the game since 1999 when was affiliated with Busta Rhymes and Flipmode. After years of building a catalog of solo work and an admirable cult following, he provides another solid album with Rosebudd’s Revenge. It’s Roc Marci at his best and most familiar; cinematic soul samples and luxury raps – real pimp shit. Some of my favorite tracks are Move Dope, Marksmen with his Metal Clergy brother Ka, and the Knxwledge-laced No Smoke with Knowledge the Pirate. Marci makes plenty of references to cats who got the game twisted. You know, rappers who want to be pimps, and druggies who think they are drug dealers.

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Fly Anakin – People Like Us (2017)

Fly Anakin is a member of rap collective Mutant Academy and based out of Richmond, VA. His flow is distinct and nostalgic; He sounds like that dude who’s ready to wash everybody in a park cypher. There’s a lot of energy and raw talent on People Like Us. With effortless precision, he floats on smokey production from Ohbliv and TUAMIE.

 

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Skyzoo – Peddler Themes (2017)

Brooklyn’s very own Skyzoo drops his new EP. As expected, he brings his high-level pen game, which many feel is refreshing in a climate where catchy hooks overshadow lyricism. My favorite tracks on this one are the !llmind produced Finesse Everything with its slick Jay-Z, Nas and Raekwon samples and ’95 Bad Boy Logo laced by the talented TUAMIE. Let this one tide you over until Celebration Of Us.

 

Double Take: Curbside Jones x DigsBot – Been Wolf

Over the years, Curbside Jones has built himself up as Austin, TX’s best kept secret, providing the music scene with thought-provoking album concepts, off-kilter production and dynamic raps. It’s been two years since his last solo album, Digital Boogie Man. In between this long stretch, he provided fans with a car-rocking beat tape about black pride, DBM acapellas for producers to remix and a loose single called SHEEP SZN. Calculated as ever, he returns with Been Wolf, the first single from his upcoming EP, Wolves’ Clothing.

Here on Double Take, I’m joined by Comic Book Underground writer, Vince London. This will become a weekly segment where we both give our thoughts on the latest music from independent artists.

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Curbside Jones continues to push the envelope with his latest animated music video, Been Wolf. It’s a clever video where Curbside reverses the roles between wolf and sheep, offering a progressive spin on the hunter versus the hunted. The video follows a sheep who wants to step foot in the world of wolves. A world filled with fancy cars, beautiful female “sheeple”, and expensive clothes. He’s tired of being the one hunted so he attempts to portray the hunter. Chicago-based animator Digsbot is the mastermind behind this fun music video. Between the subtleties in the cartooning and Curbside Jones’ in-your-face style of music, it is the best music video we’ve seen in quite some time. It reminds us of a time when they were fun to watch, and when directors, like Hype Williams, were leading the front in visuals. We’re excited to hear the full version of Wolves Clothing EP next week via Artistic Manifesto. Hopefully, it will give us something fresh to play through our auxiliary cables. We expect nothing less from Curbside Jones because he is known for his unique music drops.

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“What you gon’ do when these wolves come through? Hiding in plain sight, they coming for you.”

Curbside Jones brings another futuristic blap to the table with Been Wolf. It’s introspective and both the song and video symbolize being a “sheep in wolves’ clothing”. Lines like “Didn’t shed a tear, outta fear of being a sheep,” reveals how it feels to be a wolf; You have to be callous and dominant to make it in this world. Towards the end of the video, we see the sheep entering a thrift store for some hand-me-down “wolves’ clothing.” From here we can only speculate if he’ll become what he despises, or use this new identity to serve a greater purpose. Been Wolf sounds more stripped down than his previous work. Luckily for old fans, the nuances in his production and rapping remains intact. Digsbot’s quirky animation style fits well with the music, too, and I hope both creators continue building great art together in the future.


Wolves’ Clothing releases on July 24th. Follow @CurbsideJones and visit curbsidejones.com for more info.

The Dark Side of Celebrity Fandom: Perfect Blue [Review]

This review has spoilers!

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“I just want to thank my fans for everything” is a cheesy yet valid line we often hear from celebrities. Fans buy the albums, attend the concerts and purchase the merchandise. They’re the ones spreading the gospel. They go so hard, you’d think they were getting paid for it (some actually do).

In the summer of 1997, the late Satoshi Kon released his animated psychological thriller, Perfect Blue. Adapted from the novel with the same name, it revealed a much scarier side of celebrity fandom. The film focuses on Mima Kirgoe, a Japanese pop music idol who retires to become an actress. This isn’t an easy transition, however. Between self-doubt, upset fans and an emerging stalker, Mima’s sanity takes a nosedive.

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The film tackles two important themes: pressure and identity. We see the pressure, not only from Mima’s emotional state, but from the film’s rapid pacing. Things move overwhelmingly fast. Mima’s delusional behavior makes it hard to pin down what’s real and what’s fake, giving the film itself an identity crisis. Satoshi Kon stated his goal was to keep viewers’ guessing. This makes sense because the film is loaded with “what the hell is going on?” moments. Mima’s debut acting role was a trauma-inducing rape scene. Shortly after, film crew members are murdered with evidence pointing to Mima as a suspect. It’s hard to make sense of anything until the film’s final scene. It’s chaotic and makes you feel like you are losing it, too.

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Learning Mima’s manager, Rumi Hidaka, was behind everything is ironic. Rumi, an ex-pop star herself, went bonkers since her own identity relied on Mima’s music career. If Mima isn’t a squeaky clean pop idol, what is Rumi supposed to do? She lives vicariously through Mima – the “real” Mima.

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While you can draw some parallels between Perfect Blue and modern day music fans, Perfect Blue is still a fictional piece of work. Rumi wasn’t your typical fan. She admired Mima so much, she wanted to be her. When you consider she was an ex-pop star herself, it shows how addicting fandom can be from both sides. Fans love to be entertained and celebrities love the attention. Both can be potentially harmful if taken too far. This says more about a person’s mental health than anything else.

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Japan isn’t the only one suffering from this problem. Beyonce’s fanbase, known as “The Beyhive,” worships her as if she was a deity. You can find them on Twitter, along with Nicki Minaj’s “Barbies.” Korean pop fans are arguably worse. If this wasn’t enough, they get aggressive towards people who are critical of their idols. They have normal lives outside of their obsessions, much like your typical sports fan, so it doesn’t call for a psychological evaluation. The key thing to notice here is ownership. They are partially responsible for an idol’s success. They feel entitled because they made an “investment.” The problem is, they aren’t investing in a car or cell phone but a living, breathing human being.

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Fans are fortunate enough to have power without any sense of accountability. Unlike their idols, they can be imperfect without having to face universal criticism. Being scolded by your parents or your boss is annoying. Being scolded by millions of people you don’t know? Potentially traumatizing. If a celebrity struggles with mental health issues, fans don’t have to take responsibility for it – or even care.

Perfect Blue will change your perspective on the entertainment industry. Corporations feed us celebrities like they do food, so it’s easy to look at them like products. I’d take it one step further and say people look at them like gods. On the surface, it’s “only entertainment.” Dig deeper and it looks more horrifying. We have corrupt corporations who create, mold and package them for the masses. Then we have the rabid fans who spend an alarming amount of time worshiping them. Finally, there’s the celebrity, caught in the eye of this storm called fame. If Perfect Blue teaches us anything, it’s how bad consumerism has gotten. We’re spoiled rotten.

“When you become famous, being famous becomes your profession.” – James Carville

In Rotation 7/14

What I’ve been listening to this week:

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Jodeci – Forever My Lady (1991)

Following in the footsteps of Boyz II Men, Guy and New Edition, Jodeci helped forge a new sound for R&B. Their debut album, Forever My Lady, managed to capture the attention of listeners outside of R&B. This is attributed to group member and producer Devante Swing who drew influence from hip-hop and new jack swing. This gave the album mass appeal, bouncing from smooth and emotional to visceral and upbeat. The production is undoubtedly praise worthy, but the singers’ elevate it to new heights. Their vocal performances are powerful and emotional, which isn’t shocking, because they grew up singing gospel. I enjoyed the vocal arrangement and layering, especially on I’m Still Waiting – the standout track. Overall, this is a classic album which set the standard for future R&B acts.

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Persona 5 Original Soundtrack (2016)

Shoji Meguro is a talented video game composer. His versatility is impressive but it never felt engaging enough. He usually picks style over substance, leaving a lot to be desired. The Persona 5 soundtrack is different. It’s definitely stylish but has more weight than his previous work. There’s also a new vocalist, Lyn, who adds some additional soul to the soundtrack. I loved Shihoko Hirata, but I think Lyn’s voice fits the jazzy composition and overall mood on here (I’m also tired of watered-down J-pop music). This is arguably the best soundtrack in the series; This is Shoji Meguro’s magnum opus.

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Jun Togawa – 20th (2000)

I recently discovered Jun Togawa while browsing for obscure 80’s music. Experimental and quirky, she’s a stark contrast to most J-pop artists. Her songs are often hit-or-miss but she makes up for it with how fascinating she is. Listening to her music is…fun? 20th is a collection of covers to celebrate her 20th anniversary in the industry. ラジオのように, the jazz-infused cover of Brigitte Fontaine’s Comma a la radio has an infectious rhythm. It’s weird yet catchy. Things hit avant-garde levels on the electronic Finale before entering pop territory on Vanessa Paradis’s Joe le Taxi. It’s a strange musical ride yet I enjoyed it. Jun’s voice is unique but can be unbearable, especially on tracks like Because the Night – a Patti Smith cover – with its scathing, obnoxious production. Togawa is an acquired taste. I’d only recommend her if you listen to music that requires headphones at all times.

Corey Arnell – Basic Cable [Review]

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Being a 90’s kid, I grew up on memorable TV shows. I remember watching Hey Arnold, All That, Kenan and Kel, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, hell, I even enjoyed a few episodes of Seinfield. But the first time I discovered Toonami, a programming block on Cartoon Network, my life changed forever. While it introduced me to anime, it also introduced me to some great music, too. Years later, I would scour the internet for “bumps” that evoked a similar sound; Something jazzy and spaced-out with laid back drum breaks. Eventually, this obsession introduced me to my favorite beatmakers, J Dilla and Madlib. Toonami’s background music is important. It inspired many bedroom beatmakers and forged its own subculture on music platforms like BandCamp and SoundCloud. There’s a good chance your favorite contemporary beatmaker watched Toonami growing up.

Enter the world of Corey Arnell, an experimental hip-hop producer based in Austin, TX. He’s worked with up-and-coming artists like Curbside Jones, Plue Starfox, 7¢ HERM, and Lenard. Like many older artists, he balances a full-time job with his musical pursuits. He isn’t driven by money and fame, though. He simply enjoys making music and sharing it with his peers.

Basic Cable is Arnell’s second beat tape (according to his BandCamp) and it shows his progression as a beatsmith over the past two years. The tape has a good balance of sample-based production and original compositions. His sample choices are off the wall and that’s emphasized even more when he blends them with synth-soaked melodies and chords. The meticulous drum programming stood out the most, though. The rhythms are off-kilter but never ruin the groove. He knows how to hit the sweet spot in the experimental department.

Basic Cable is lengthy, sitting 17 tracks deep with each one named after memorable TV stations. Arnell transports you to a nostalgic time when you were a kid flipping through channels late at night.

 

 

Arnell wears his influences on his sleeves for most beats. He does this respectfully, though, because he is great at adding his own spin to things. Nickelodeon has a 90’s Timbaland feel to it. So much so, I could picture Missy Elliot or Aaliyah on it. The jazzy Hallmark sounds like a potential Jay-Z/Pharrell collab. Then you have CBS, which you could easily hear MF DOOM spit zany bars on.

The tape isn’t just filled with Arnell paying homage, however. Many beats meet the line between “maybe somebody could rap on this” and “this belongs in a video game.” Syfy (Parts 1 and 2) fall in this category. Both have swinging drums that make it easy to rap on but also would fit in a Metroid OST.

Some Additional Notes On Beats I Enjoyed

BET

A chill track that takes you to another planet. Detailed drum patterns with a nice bounce. Love the chords on here too.

MTV

A washed out guitar sample and screaming back vocals make me think of teenage angst. Banging 808’s take this to another level.

Disney Channel

Has a Neptunes feel. The drums on this are addicting.

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This one has a nice groove. Digging the classic Lyn Collins Think (About It) sample.


Basic Cable quietly fits itself in the realm of Toonami-inspired beat tapes. With its trippy album art and Adult Swim-inspired typography, it’s easy to see where Arnell was trying to go. If you like your beats experimental with bounce, Basic Cable is for you.

 

In Rotation 7/3

What I’ve been listening to this week:

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JAY-Z & No I.D. – 4:44

At midnight on June 29th, JAY-Z dropped his 13th studio album 4:44. Produced by the legendary No I.D., it’s another example of how well one rapper/one producer albums can work. 4:44 is, thankfully, heavy on the soul samples, giving it a nostalgic feel all the way through. Much respect to Guru for his incredible engineering skills, too. While the media complained about JAY’s adultery, they glossed over the gems he dropped about the black community. He isn’t the first to mention financial literacy and black accountability. He expressed these ideas on a large platform, and for that, I commend him. We know “black capitalism” isn’t the panacea for systematic racism, but supporting/building black empires is the first step to gaining true independence. Support your black brothers and sisters, y’all.

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Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

Ever since Prima Donna, I had a feeling Vince Staples was going avant-garde with his musical approach. Fans complained about him rapping on “weird techno beats” but Vince didn’t budge; He went left-field with no f***’s given. Big Fish Theory is in the same boat as Yeezus (Kanye West), Black Up (Shabazz Palaces), and CLPPNG (clipping). It’s a rap album with vibrant, electronic production. Vince’s performance makes it even wilder; He doesn’t miss a step at all, even on these “weird techno beats.”

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Persona 2 Innocent Sin: The Errors Of Their Youth

I’ve always loved the Shin Megami Tensei series because it shook up the JRPG formula. Even before it formed a cult fan base in the West, it always managed to have something crazy going on – like controversial religious themes. The music is a staple, thanks to Shoji Meguro, who I feel is underrated among video game composers. The Errors of Their Youth is a Persona 2: Innocent Sin remix album arranged by Persona 2 composers Kenichi Tsuchiya, Masaki Kurokawa, Toshiko Tasaki, and Yoshiharu Ohta. The house remix of Maya’s theme and trip hop remix of Jun’s theme stood out the most, but overall, this was a forgettable album. It doesn’t have the cohesiveness of the original soundtrack. I’d only recommend it if you can’t get enough of Persona and J-pop.