In July 2013, Jay Z rewrote the rules of the game by sending his Samsung-sponsored, platinum-on-arrival album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail, to one million smartphones. The same month saw another Brooklyn rapper quietly take an unconventional route for his own album release. Brownsville's Ka unveiled his third album, The Night's Gambit, on the Manhattan street corner where shuttered record store Fat Beats once stood. Ka went out there, armed only with cardboard boxes and a green rucksack full of CDs and vinyl records. He then tweeted out his location, using new media to sell music the old-fashioned way. Ka took his music to the streets.
Another difference between the Brooklyn boys? Ka fans ended up with the superior product. The Night's Gambit is pure, raw, uncut dope. You're going to need to bump it several times to unpack all the nuances. "Our Father," "Off the Record," and "Knighthood" are immediate standouts, but no matter where you land genius awaits.
Of course, this is nothing new for ardent Ka fans. He limned grim portraits of his Brownsville neighborhood on last year's Grief Pedigree, packing fully materialized ideas and an assload of quotables into 36 minutes. The Night Gambit exists in that continuum of environment as art, sidewalks coming into full view with every detailed scene. And the lyrics are still wonderfully tactile.
One notable improvement is in the production. Ka's beats are heavier, richer, weirder. It's hard to tell if he's rising above his narratives or trying to escape them. Amidst the ingredients are: uncoiling records, scratches, vocal samples, that one scene where Bodie and D'Angelo discuss chess on The Wire. Sometimes, drums don't even make it into the equation. All of this meandering makes for one hell of a hazy soundtrack.
Luckily, Ka's flow is just as eccentric. His delivery vacillates between a whisper and a shrug. Highlights abound at every turn: he drops a criminal-minded thriller on "Our Father," offers reflective lines on "Knighthood," and slyly nods at 62 Golden Era hip-hop albums on "Off the Record."
In an era when everything is rushed off the music industry assembly line, Ka takes his sweet time when he rhymes. He's never in a hurry. The calm in his flow is arresting; the breaks give the listener time to process the vivid details in the poetry and the music. Maybe he's just old-fashioned -- he's been grinding for like 200 years, having rapped alongside the ultra-talented Natural Elements crew in the mid-90s. Maybe he's holding out faith that there's someone out there who still appreciates lurid lyrics dipped in potent production. Whatever the case, The Night's Gambit is a fresh listen—an album that rewards repeated spins.