During the late 90′s / early 2000′s indie hip-hop boom, one of the crews that most impressed us the most was NYC crew Natural Elements. After serving up two classic singles for each Tommy Boy Black Label and Stretch Armstrong’s DOLO imprint, they pretty much disappeared forever. Although the crew was made up of eight members, things pretty much focused on Mr. Voodoo, L-Swift and A-Butta, whom together, destroyed beats by the almighty Charlemagne (not to be confused with the Power radio host of the same name) and then pretty much disappeared from the scene. Charlemagne was a beast behind the boards, and the crew’s styles meshed accordingly, creating some brilliant, best-kept-secret, underground hip-hop, and then left on a high note.
But the legend of Natural Elements gets even more interesting with the story of Brooklyn’s Ka, a lesser known member of the crew. Ka was down with the set and recorded tracks with them, but wasn’t seen as “ready” quite yet, and has publically stated in interviews that he now looks back at his earlier material as wack. In an almost MF Doom-like move, after a long absence, Ka returned to the scene at the age of 40, releasing a highly buzz-worthy project called Brief Pedigree, a follow-up to his overlooked 2008 debut, Iron Works. Brief Pedigree introduced the world to Ka, in a rare tale that found an older rapper improving with age, making his mark in a young man’s game.
The Night’s Gambit is the follow-up to that album, arguably improving on the groundwork laid by its predecessor. Similar to recent works from Roc Marciano, Ka’s approach is heavy on dusty samples, light on drums, and unbelievably dark. The album’s opening track, “You Know It’s About” sets the stage the rest of the album, as he recounts tales of a checkered, drug-dealing, stick-up-kid past. The bassline broods, the procussions rattle like subway tracks, and his delivery is unbelievably cold. This is the sound of New York.
It’s a sound that has been lost over the years, as we’ve seen rappers from the birthplace of hip-hop attempt to conform to modern trends, rather than create them, which is what makes The Night’s Gambit such a breath of fresh, brisk air. Like the music of the pre-Bad Boy era, Ka’s approach is unapologetic, on songs like “Our Father”, where he laments ” Our Father who art in heaven / Hollows hit my man, they sparked my brethren / Hurtin’, so I’m certain won’t be good today / All I ask Lord / Lord, is that you look away”. Damn….
If you really think about that line, it shows what a dark place Ka is coming from. Like his production, Ka takes an understated approach, so rather than firing off at the mouth with the usual bullet-riddled, rapper gun-talk, he keeps it more implied, more subtle. Again on “Peace Akhi”, he states “Pistol’s the only piece I see / There’s war here / but I still tell my n***as ‘peace Akhi”. Later on “30 Pieces Of Silver”, he tells a cinematic tale of betrayal, mirroring that of Jesus / Judas.
The film dialogue samples used on The Night’s Gambit sew the album together well, and give it a feeling not unlike that of GZA’s Liquid Swords LP (Editor’s Note: Ka was “re-discovered” by GZA, who included him on the Pro Tools album, leading to the release of Iron Works the same year). But The Night’s Gambit is an album unlike any other in sound, as it almost creates a post-New-York rap sound. It doesn’t attempt to recreate the boom-bap era, but is clearly a by-product of it. This is especially evident on the last track, “Off The Record”, with verses built around classic album titles.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen hip-hop transform into something very different than what originally came out of the five boroughs in the 1970′s. With many of that generation’s rappers getting older and fading off into obscurity, it would seem like it was soon to be lost forever. Yet Ka is a late-bloomer from that same era, who is well past the idea of trying to “blow up”, so-to-speak. His music comes from the heart, is clearly a labor of love, and most of all, presents an original take on something that has been done to death. Don’t sleep on this Night.
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