If every artist’s work is defined by a subject, Ka‘s is the neighborhood that shaped him. The Brownsville area of Brooklyn where he was raised is one that he knows intimately and intricately, his reflections and recollections delivered at once vividly and through complex metaphor. The sense of place doesn’t change—his angle shifts even when the addresses themselves remain the same—but with each new set of songs he presents interconnected narratives and reflections through a different framing device. His approach can feel at times more like that of a director behind the camera, employing past records such as The Night’s Gambit and Honor Killed the Samurai, incorporating imagery from chess and feudal Japan, respectively, to shine a light on the same topic in the same way that David Lynch is always peeling back a layer of Americana to reveal something darker beneath.
The titles and cover art to companion albums Languish Arts and Woeful Studies give away the concept here, as well as the classroom “Good morning” greeting that opens “Full Cobra.” But the educational motif mostly takes a backseat to Ka’s observations, the likes of which often skew toward the chilling and bleak, even as inspiring and affecting moments manage to find their way through the cracks in the concrete. Opening track “Full Cobra” summarizes the harshness of the landscape that unfolds throughout these 20 songs: “I speak some triumphs, some mistakes/ From a place where they hug the snub, ’cause none embrace.”
The implicit suggestion on Languish Arts and Woeful Studies is one laced with irony: The most hard-learned lessons are those that didn’t happen inside a classroom. And yet Ka’s increasingly sharp lyricism reaffirms him as a dedicated pupil to his craft, his ability to deliver origami folds of imagery and wordplay as arresting as his delivery remains low-key and dispassionate. On “Eat” he confesses, “I was in a hole, you don’t know the half,” while in “Forgive Me,” that craft becomes more personally confining: “I live in these bars, might be hard to find a better prison.” But it’s often the more plainspoken moments that leave the greatest impact, as on “My Only Place” when he very nearly breaks his facade of stoic cool, sneering, “How they do us today, I say fuck this place/but it’s my only home/The only place I’ve known.”
Ka’s words remain the focal point on these two partner releases, with his increasingly more skeletal production largely being pared down to sparse clips of guitar or strings, few of these tracks containing anything you’d realistically call a “beat,” just chilling visitations from ghosts of other music. “We Hurting” is one of the exceptions, the closest thing here to classic boom bap in which he seeks immortality through fabulism: “My writing goal is for every scroll to become a old adage.” But the snap of an 808 loop would only get in the way of a song like “Reap,” in which Ka’s unusually breathless delivery provides the rhythm beneath a trilling guitar loop.
For two albums densely packed with verbal detours and dazzlingly dour imagery, Languish Arts and Woeful Studies are fairly concise at only 54 minutes combined, and the differences between the two are mostly a matter of degree. But while concept is important in Ka’s world, and crucial to understanding him as a listener, it’s the kernels of honesty and history within each recollection of trauma, gratitude and internal conflict that makes his classroom attendance mandatory. He says it best in “Eat”: “Dedicated my life to studying, every lesson I share it.”
Label: Iron Works
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.