Ka: Langu Arts / Woeful Studies Album Review

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville depicted in Ka’s music is austere: stripped of all artifice, heightened by religious levels of penance and gratitude. There’s constant talk of being damned, of making the best of bad situations brought about by poverty, the police, the drug trade and the irrevocable nature of the street ties that bind. But the rhythms and bars that Ka evokes never seem one-dimensional. His voice flows through the cracks of street corners where friends have been gunned down, the straightforwardness of his writing giving rise to dark, cavernous alleys and cupboards reeking of instant soups and despair. The scope of early projects like iron works and Pedigree of bereavement is quite expansive and heartbreaking on its own, but Ka’s work became more powerful once he began to use themes and concepts to canonize his story into an epic in its own right.

The trials and tribulations of Ka’s life, and the wisdom and trauma that accompanies them, are given new context on each album, recycled like rainwater. In 2013, he redrew his stories under the guise of chess and other strategy games on bet of the nightthen did the same with Bushido code on 2016 Honor killed the samurai. He turned to literature for framing devices, including The Manchu Candidate (2015’s Preservation-product Days with Dr. Yen Lo) and Greek and Christian mythology with the years 2018 Orpheus versus the Sirens (a team with California producer Animoss) and the 2020s Cain’s lineage. By 2021 A martyr’s reward, he had turned the lens on himself, examining his legacy as one of rap’s most consistent songwriters. Many rappers have compared their music to therapy, but the stark minimalism of Ka’s words evokes the catharsis of uncomfortable revelations uncovered over years of deep reflection.

languishing arts and *Woeful Studies—*his ninth and 10th studio albums, released back-to-back earlier this month—combine the self-analysis of A martyr’s reward with an examination of how learned behaviors can compound and exacerbate the seemingly endless cycles of poverty and oppression that specifically affect black people. Hard-learned lessons from cops who might be “vegan, how they plant the base” and kids who spend an entire school year in a pair of pants rub shoulders with his thirst for both emotional and circumstantial truths. “The wise listener hears every soup kitchen and every line of bread,” he says on Languish“Last Place”, the closing piece. After embracing her upbringing, Ka engages her music in clearing cobwebs for those who walk similar paths. Compared to his other albums, the relative brightness of the beats here – all self-produced except three by Animoss and one by Preservation – draws attention to the melancholy of his stories more than ever. Healing from trauma takes time; Languish and Sad continue the slow unfolding in a typically beautiful way.

Ka’s journey with metaphor and prose is truly astounding. On Languish opening “Full Cobra”, he communicates his place within hip-hop and its community with consummate efficiency: “I do this picturesque rap, it’s true; it’s not a trap, I brought escapes. The “escape” is both literal and figurative: Lucky enough to have come out of the trenches, Ka writes songs that purge bad thoughts from his present while contextualizing his past. The clever pun of bars like “I was in a hole, you don’t know half” (“Eat”) or “We not innocent, we into dollars” (“We Not Innocent”) never overshadows his triumph of being here to say them Every song on these two albums is peppered with lyrical gems like these, delivered in the characteristic raspy murmur of weathered sage.

Ka’s minimalism in vocals and production draws attention to the open space in her songs. Where the typical Ka rhythm feels dull and worn, as if it had been lifted from classic Turner films, Languish and Sad contain the most lush music of his career. The orchestral strings and occasional electric guitar hits that accompany “Ascension” are reminiscent of Jay Electronica rapping over Jon Brion’s score for Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. Flutes and a throbbing theremin sample give “Touch锑s counted blessings a sickly mood, while triangle, bass and horns punctuate Ka’s memories of the comfort of dinner parties turned into celebrations and the anxiety of watching the police scans on “I’m tired”. The second half of “Eat” sets an emotional piano loop against Ka’s harrowing ruminations on neighborhood numbers from his childhood and confronts the bad habits he’s clung to: now, instead of throwing that. It’s a bittersweet moment, his relief at having managed to rub up against the reality of others who are still suffering.

The world Ka lives in is suffocating in its emptiness, but her presence and persistence fill the field with cinematic magnitude. The broad perspective manifests itself in languishing arts and Dismal studies‘ separate albums status. Both have clear beginnings, middles, and endings, but there is no symbolic yin and yang relationship between the two, no concordant moments or differentiated production quirks. Putting the records side by side just underscores the point he’s trying to make. Ka’s music scars come with lessons he feels compelled to pass on. For the first time, he fully assumes the role of teacher, claiming the title of griot for his time as wounded street soldiers. His growing confidence in his role as the progenitor of the New York underground seeps through the subtle changes that give both albums their meticulous shine. But it’s the glimmers of hope that set them apart in Ka’s catalog. For him, those who don’t know their history – of race, of family, of rap – are compelled to repeat it. He has never seemed more determined to lead by example.

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