If every artist’s work is defined by a subject, Ka’s is the neighborhood that shaped it. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville where he grew up is one he knows intimately and intricately, his thoughts and memories delivered both vividly and through complex metaphor. The sense of place does not change – its angle changes even when the addresses themselves remain the same – but with each new set of songs, it presents interconnected narratives and reflections through a different framing device. His approach can sometimes be more like that of a director behind the camera, using past recordings such as bet of the night and Honor killed the samuraiincorporating imagery from chess and feudal Japan, respectively, to spotlight the same subject in much the same way David Lynch always strips away a layer of Americana to reveal something darker beneath.
The titles and covers of the companion albums languishing arts and Dismal studies give the concept here, as well as the “Hello” greeting from the class that opens “Full Cobra”. But the educational motif usually takes a back seat to the observations of Ka, whose tastes often lean towards the cold and dark, even if inspiring and moving moments manage to squeeze their way through the cracks in the concrete. The opening track “Full Cobra” encapsulates the harsh landscape that unfolds throughout these 20 songs: “I’m talking about triumphs, mistakes / From a place where they hug the snub, ’cause no one kisses.”
The implicit suggestion of languishing arts and Dismal studies is full of irony: the hardest learned lessons are those that did not take place in a classroom. And yet Ka’s increasingly sharp lyricism reaffirms him as a dedicated student of his craft, his ability to deliver origami folds of imagery and puns as striking as his delivery remains unobtrusive and unbiased. On “Eat,” he confesses, “I was in a hole, you don’t know the half», while in « Forgive Me », this job becomes more personal: «I live in these bars, can be hard to find a better prison.” But it’s often the clearest moments that leave the most impact, like on “My Only Place” when he nearly shatters his facade of stoic, sneering cool,”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 of these two partner releases, his increasingly skeletal output largely reduced to rare guitar or string clips, few of these tracks containing anything you’d realistically call a ‘beat’, just spooky ghost tours of other music. “We Hurting” is one of the exceptions, the closest thing here to the classic boom bap in which he seeks immortality through fabulism: “My writing goal is for each scroll to become an 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 beat under a trilling guitar loop.
For two albums dense with verbal detours and dazzling images of austerity, languishing arts and Dismal studies are fairly concise at just 54 minutes combined, and the differences between the two are mostly a matter of degree. But while the concept is important in Ka’s world and crucial to understanding it as a listener, it is the cores of honesty and story in every memory of trauma, gratitude and inner conflict that make its presence in compulsory class. He says it best in “Eat”: “I dedicated my life to studying, every lesson I share.”
Label: iron works