Album Review: Ka – A Martyr’s Reward

[Iron Works; 2021]

Some time between the release of last year’s Descendants of Cain and now, Brownsville’s sincerest firefighting-rapper Ka decided to expand his palette, production wise, resulting in his most expansive sounding work to date in new album A Martyr’s Reward. It’s a surprisingly quick follow-up to Cain, given that Ka’s usual turn around is two or three years.

A Martyr’s Reward is more immediate than anything else Ka’s done, at least since Honor Killed the Samurai back in 2016. He’s on an immaculate unbroken streak of great albums thus far, but with A Martyr’s Reward he veers into more colorful territory and it pays off. This isn’t a sellout record, Ka’s simply using new textures to underline his points more robustly.

He brings piano keys to the soundscape on early stand out “I Need All That”, and while he’s used piano previously, it’s never been this vibrant or even paired with such powerful words “I want back everything they took / my culture, my music, my look.” He shimmers on “Be Grateful” and waltzes through “Having Nothin’”, the powerful album closer, and repeats “Having nothing gave me everything, it gave me everything / having nothing gave me everything I need.”

It’s hard to not hear A Martyr’s Reward without connecting its context to the string of police brutality and racism that’s dominated news and culture headlines in recent years. Ka’s angry, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from his tone, since his voice never changes from his signature contemplative timbre. Ka’s still not technically rapping, his delivery is very spoken word mixed with hip-hop progressions.

As always, Ka’s music is grounded in explorations of his upbringing, which brings with it plenty of pain – but also perseverance. He recalls these hardships on “I Notice”, and it’s accompanied by a black and white video where Ka drives around the city, sporting a gnarly beard, all the while elaborating on his gritty youth with unrefined veracity, “Seem every boy is raised to shine / unless the son is black.” Every Ka album is overflowing with poetic brutality, he never holds back, and he always has a way with words that even the strongest rappers can’t touch; “Cops got us under microscopes / to make sure we see cells.”

On “Like Me”, Ka returns to a perfected method from Honor Killed the Samurai, the drawn-out horns at the start painting a landscape to backdrop his words. He’s not repeating himself, he’s just using the instruments he’s been using for years with a stronger purpose. He drops a brief guitar solo at the outro to add an exclamation point for emphasis, but at no point is any of this forced, it all feels organic and earthy.

A Martyr’s Reward feels like the most complete Ka album yet, from the brighter production to the ever-evolving wordplay. It’s almost as if the pandemic was the perfect catalyst for Ka, giving him time to focus on the project and make a record that is everything he’s worked towards. He pulls in an assist from Navy Blue on “We Livin’ / Martyr”, which gears up for a long haul with a cinema-primed twang as the two rappers trade verses. There’s an ever-expanding collective of rappers today who make up what’s consider ‘conscious hip hop’, and both Ka and Navy are firmly in that scene, writing music that isn’t intended for consumption by non-forward-thinking audiences.

Ka’s never sounded warmer than he does on this album. He’s emotionally mature and upping his game. Something feels quite different, even if it’s still 100% Ka. While his voice doesn’t change much, there’s a very strong passion present on every track. On the folk-driven opener “Everybody Up,” we get to hear more about Ka’s personality, we find that he’s “not a sex villain / raised to respect women / no is no” and that “If I fail, everybody stuck,” conspicuously unearthing a rare tenderness.

While finding out that Ka is a stand-up guy isn’t surprising, the fact that he’s revealing this information to us so candidly is surprising. Whether he wants to accept it or not, Ka’s image is one of resilience and a bit of reluctance. “I’m outside trying to endure” he says on “Subtle”, a song that appears to be about his reclusiveness in the rap game, “I’da stayed anonymous if prominent was pure,” he adds, showing that the desire is there, but the hesitation is too strong. This is a man who resembles a beacon of honesty on all his records, and when the female he’s referring to on “Subtle” tells him “this is why they love you” it feels like one more painful truth that Ka now has to burden.