In the Streets Like Ron O’Neal: Ka’s Superfly Single

Brownsville champion Ka returns with the perfectly minimalistic "30 Keys."
By    January 19, 2016

30 keys still

Douglas Martin wasn’t a good shooter like a Hoosier.

“Jumper wasn’t wet enough, too rushed to write a rhyme.”

When you grow up without money, the allure of having it becomes a fantasy that infiltrates all your daydreams. Being on the service end of income disparity provokes those dreams of being a rapper, a ball player, or being one of three to split the $1.6 billion Powerball purse (even after Uncle Sam gets his cut). But only a select few of us are cut into the percentage of those who strike it rich.

It’s not just a rap cliche, it’s real life: Drug dealers are the first sign of wealth for many a kid making their way through low-income neighborhoods. No surprise those are the first job opportunities provided there; it’s either that or be a fry cook at McDonald’s. “I don’t wanna do it, gotta do it,” Ka recites in the hook for “30 Keys,” “they gotta use it, go get the powder moving.”

The Roc Marciano-produced A-side of The Superfly Single was tailor-made for his Brownsville brethren: minimalist in ways that make even the barest-bones hip-hop sound busy and cluttered in comparison: Sample loop and drums stripped down way past their basic elements. By now, it should be known as The Ka Sound, the spare beats he wraps his warm, low rumble of a voice around like wool on a needle.

“30 Keys” highlights the desperation of selling drugs in equal measure with the satisfying aroma of those weird strips of paper we keep in our wallets. Scarfing down Cups ‘o Noodles. Convincing himself “this is it” before sliding back around to his stash box in a couple weeks. His family littered with the consumers who made cocaine dealers rich, wishing he had the aptitude to find success in another trade. So desperate to have a little cash in his pocket the fear of arrest or being on the wrong end of a gun barrel doesn’t register.

The tales of moralistic struggle within a drug dealer’s soul, the institutionalization of the practice, and a subconscious rush from the risk are all a firm fabric of the rap landscape, but rarely do the songs ever feel like freezing on the corner at 3am, long after the big-budget video shoots are wrapped and the extras go home.

“Was burning with grief, trying to turn a leaf like Malcolm.”

For the b-side—titled after every American’s third-favorite book to read in their years of high school literature—Ka loops a breezy, familiar-sounding soul sample (I’m sure some intrepid crate-digger will be able to rattle off this source reflexively) and uses his observant eye to record a host of moving images from his stoop and throw in flickers of personal insight. Due to the languid pace of “Grapes of Wrath,” Ka’s voice comes tinged with regret while weaving over the guitar licks.

He never traveled, but stayed in hostels. He saw the bags under the eyes and wrinkles on the faces of local hustlers. He used his smarts to outrun the jakes and snakes. He never took his heat off, he just set the thermostat lower. He’s seen clean streets turn into sewers. He wished he could keep his heart out of it, but watching young people taken away from the terrestrial world upsets him.

For the bulk of his career, Ka has been the street poet who was never given a ticket to greener pastures. He’s watched many a veteran peer and many a young hood kid take their own stories to poolside interviews and fancy loft studios. For years, he’s been mostly ignored by a rap-consuming public who should have given him the Pulitzer. But that’s okay. His career station has only made his observations stronger, his pathos hold more weight. With all the great work he’s done thus far, Superfly provides the exciting notion that his greatest achievements may still be ahead of him.

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