Album Review: Ka – Descendants of Cain

[Iron Works; 2020]

Over the course of seven albums, Brownsville, NYC rapper Ka has explored everything under the moon and done it with analogies galore. On his last record (as Hermit the Recluse) Orpheus vs. the Sirens, Ka used mythology to convey his wisdom and impart some knowledge like rap’s Gandalf. He’s always been mysterious and worked outside the lines from other rappers, his style is far removed from the boisterous production and rapid-fire bars of his compatriots in the game. He’s glacial, empathetic, and conversational; each album requires deep listening and repeated spins to really crack open what he’s saying. Even after dozens of listens, few may even fully grasp every angle he’s approaching. Nothing by Ka is easy, it’s music you need to work with and for.

With his latest, Descendants of Cain, Ka moves in and out of these nuances with delicacy like never before. He opens the album with a sample of The Robe, the 1953 film starring Richard Burton as the Roman Marcellus Gallio – the one tasked with crucifying Jesus who is then burdened with guilt after the deadly deed. Thus begins Ka’s thirty minute odyssey about dedication and camaraderie. Drawing comparisons with the Book of Genesis and his own life, Ka doesn’t go in for any kills on Christianity or religion as a whole like some would – instead he’s keen to poetically pull the listener into a world of struggle via this allegory.

It’s hard to know specifically what Ka is referencing in each bar, as he is pretty quiet about his life experiences (we know he’s a firefighter thanks to the New York Post), but one can derive enough out of each snippet here to understand that his life has never been easy. Darkness reigns supreme as the thematic giant on Descendants of Cain – it towers over everything.

On the album’s opener “Every Now and Then”, he teeters between the pros and cons of his life path – “Loved things I should have lusted / I rushed it, snubbed things I should have trusted.” It’s a daring balancing act, and Ka extends no more than a hand for listeners to walk beside him – but not in his shoes. Where other rappers want their audience to get up and move, to feel their aggression or angst, Ka is content to just have you along for the ride.

Ka lives outside of the conventional rap; his music lacks propulsive and flashy production, instead relying on organic instrumentation that gives it a more homegrown and natural impact. Light piano keys, blues guitars, maybe some sax here and there, but nothing that overpowers the most potent instrument – Ka’s undeniably suave-yet-haggard vocals. This guy works as a fire chief for his day job, remember? He sells his records on the street corner. He’s not out to write diss tracks or start beefs – merely to share his world with us.  

“Our heroes sold heroin,” he proclaims on “Patron Saints”, cracking open the door a little more on his upbringing. The realism of Ka’s music is brutal and honest, and doesn’t require layers of thick production to pull you into the atmosphere. Just like his grandest statement, 2016’s Honor Killed the Samurai, this latest exploration of Ka’s world is vital listening for anyone seeking a modern storyteller with passion.

Descendants of Cain plays on the religious allegory heavily. On highlight “Solitude of Enoch” he relates Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the USA’s pandemic of violence. He declares “It’s hard to say, every sentence is pain / Brothers killing brothers, descendants of Cain / Props if getting knocked, and no mentioning names / I had to steel, all that time I spent in the flame.” The mass violence that plagues the country, no matter the era, still resembles that duplicitous nature; Cain slew his brother because of God’s rejection of his own sacrifice – kind of like how people of color in America are rejected by society despite their sacrifices.

So death runs rampant, and jealousy spurs inside the hearts of good and evil individuals. This isn’t new ground, it’s not even a new allegory, but with Ka it comes across more relatable, as a man who has experienced struggles with intermittent highs but subterranean lows.

This latest outing for Ka likely won’t grow his fanbase by much, his laid-back delivery might still be a hurdle for those who prefer their rap to be more biting and intense. Ka’s out on a lonely corner by himself, harnessing those 90s themes and paying homage to MF DOOM with the fire engine siren blaring behind. He may do all of this DIY, but it comes across with more heart than a lot of the tourists of the scene, and it shows in his powerful lyrics just how far he’s come in this world.