Ka’s “Descendants of Cain” Is 2020’s First Good Hip-Hop Project

Ka explores violence and death on ‘Descendants of Cain.’

I’m a simple man; I see an abstract hip-hop album, and I have to listen.

The most recent abstract hip-hop project getting a lot of attention is from Brooklyn rapper, producer, and firefighter Ka. While I never heard of his solo work, I have heard of his 2018 side-project, Hermit and the Recluse. Ka, and producer Animoss, released Orpheus vs. the Sirens under this name, which was a concept album focused on Greek mythology.

I now have an interest in listening to Orpheus, as Ka’s latest project mostly impressed me. Descendants of Cain paints a grim picture of life in Brooklyn, using minimalist production, and biblical allegories.

Abstract hip-hop’s appeal is mainly due to the genre’s forward-thinking production and its exploration in the sophisticated and cerebral. Some of my favorite artists within the genre, such as MF Doom, Earl Sweatshirt, Lil’ Ugly Mane, billy woods, etc., utilize unconventional beats with their methodical and intricate lyrics to create music that pushes the boundaries of rap music.

That leaves us with Ka’s newest record. I was floored with his usage of sampling and instrument looping. He uses these elements to establish a gloomy atmosphere in his songs: the dirty bassline of “Unto the Dust,” the somber pianos and strings of “Patron Saints,” the hauntingly beautiful vocal sampling of “Sins of the Father,” and the looping melancholic guitar chords on “Land of Nod.”

Ka’s apathetic delivery on these tracks reinforces the dark tone. The narrative focuses on his experience with violence and death. It seems appropriate that Ka appears emotionally detached from what is happening around him. To an outsider, Ka’s stories are horrific. But he’s experienced it firsthand. It stopped being horrible to him long ago.

It’s another layer that adds to the drab and dark atmosphere of the record.

I was amused at Ka’s constant sampling of films. It was reminiscent of GZA’s use of sampling on Liquid Swords. Here, samples were often used as transitions from track to track or to remind the listener that this record has a loose connection to religion.

Speaking of which, Ka uses the story of Cain and Abel, as well as other biblical allegories, for the record’s aesthetic and relative thematic cohesion. The best example of this is on “Solitude of Enoch.” Ka relates the violence in black American communities, specifically the one he grew up in, to Cain killing Abel — “Brothers killing brothers.”

While this is a brilliant line, I wish more lines like this were on the record. It’s a shame the religious context doesn’t shine through as much as I thought it would.

Regardless of the record’s themes and messages, Ka excels at compelling and colorful storytelling. He tells anecdotes of life in poverty, violence and injustice in black communities, and having drug-dealers as role models. The narrative is dark and depressing, but ultimately it’s a reminder of the reality that black communities are facing in America.

“Patron Saints” is one of many examples where I felt completely engaged with Ka’s stories. In one, prolonged verse, he is able to vividly depict the harsh life he has always known. This track ends with the hard-hitting line, “Our heroes sold heroin.”

The penultimate track, “Old Justice,” details the cruel belief system that vengeance is justified for any act of violence in these communities — “Round here everybody know the truth / A body for an eye, a body for a tooth.”

While I do believe most of the record’s content is compelling and complex, I do find myself questioning some of Ka’s decisions. For instance, “The Eye of a Needle,” which tells of the fear and paranoia in American ghettos. Ka even mentions his late friend, Kev, and wishing he could say to him that he loved him before he passed away.

Yet, halfway through the song, there is a beat switch that is jarring and distracted me from the track’s narrative. It doesn’t add to the story either, as nothing that Ka says prompts this change in the melody. It’s a shame too since I prefer the composition in the first half of the song.

The final track, “I Love,” is frustrating because I struggle to find the importance of its placement on the record (I do enjoy the looping soul vocal sample and the sensual guitar and drums, though). Three verses comprise this track — one dedicated to Ka’s lover, mother, and late friend, Kev. He expresses his love and appreciation for them, leading to a heartwarming moment at the end of the record.

But, how does this fit into the overall narrative of the record? One could argue that this is Ka highlighting hope in a world of despair. Yet, this track comes right after Ka explains violence pays for violence. It’s a bit of jarring jump in the story. Despite this reservation, “I Love” is still a great track.

Descendants of Cain shows Ka’s lyrical and narrative prowess but falters from a lack of conceptual cohesion and minor compositional hiccups. I’ll have to explore some of Ka’s earlier work, especially Orpheus vs. The Sirens. But, I am excited to see what else Ka is capable of later this decade.

Essential Tracks: “Unto the Dust,” “Patron Saints,” “Solitude of Enoch,” “Sins of the Father,” “Old Justice,” “I Love”

7/10

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