Max Bell can kill a lot with one sword.
The tenets of Bushido, the code by which samurai lived and died, were thus: rectitude (in battle and death), courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, and loyalty. Ka, Brownsville’s best MC since the late Sean Price, may have only studied the military nobility of feudal Japan for his new album, Honor Killed the Samurai (HKTS), but he’s known ‘the way way of warrior’ for decades.
Picture New York City in the 70’s and 80’s. Now substitute katanas and dynasties for glocks and project tenement supremacy, gilded armor for glinting Starter jackets and black leather bombers, pounding steeds for screeching, un-air conditioned trains. It’s the era turned technicolor by Netflix and Baz Luhrmann. But since 2008’s Iron Works, Ka’s rendered it in black and white (if you’ve seen his videos, you know this is meant both figuratively and literally). With each subsequent project, FDNY’s finest has made the contrast starker.
HKTS is the album the 40-plus-year-old Ka’s wanted to make since his days in Natural Elements and Nightbreed. The delivery on Grief Pedigree (2012) was smoother, more polished than that on Iron Works; the Spartan instrumentals increased in sparsity on Night’s Gambit (2013) and, on Days with Dr. Yen Lo (2015), the rhymes became even sharper. On past records, the grim past was noir and parable. Now, on the self-produced HKTS, it’s practically haiku. He removes what he deems unnecessary adornment. He’s been building to this, or rather, deconstructing one purposeful syllable at a time.
Album opener “Conflicted” sounds, as our own Douglas Martin suggested, like the rap equivalent of a Dirty Beaches song (e.g. “Black Nylon” or “Hotel”). Lo-fi and clangorous, Ka’s voice fills the space between propulsive drums. It’s an unsettling suite, one that mirrors his mental state as he tersely recounts his divisive upbringing. The inherent pain in his hushed voice rarely cuts as deep. On HKTS, he rhymes the way Tim O’Brien writes about Vietnam, post-traumatically retreading the same events in hope of forever unattainable closure (“With steady pride I show you every side / I give it life but write like I already died” – “That Cold and Lonely”). The lens and germane diction enhance the familiar, but it’s the new revelations that make listening worthwhile.
The influence of samurai culture is both overt and subtle. You hear it in the production, in the strings plucked on shogun land and the vocal samples detailing samurai life. Then there are the rhymes that swiftly sneak past on first listen, lines like, “When you step protect your mind and chestplate / Tried years for these ideas to gestate” (“That Cold and Lonely”), or, “Motion picture scripture, every song scored / They want grief, unsheath the long sword” (“Finer Things / Tamahagene”). Ka sharpens blades long and short, striking down unrelenting demons and present competition with greater effortlessness and efficacy.
The ethos of the album comes on the warm, muted “Mourn the Night.” Here Ka pokes holes in the pasts of rappers who excessively celebrate their newfound wealth, prizing it over benevolence and struggle. In his eyes, if their lives pre-fame were truly as tumultuous as the claim, they wouldn’t be able to rap about anything else. He lived through one of the worst eras of crime to ever rot the Big Apple. The sour code he learned on cold corners and in pissy stairwells won’t allow him to rap about the sweet. Suicide would be more honorable.