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Colin Gannon’s tale on tape is super heavy.
Orpheus, a treasured prophet, musician, and poet in Greek mythology, was a master of the ancient lyre, a stringed instrument not too dissimilar from a small harp. His saintly strumming of the lyre was said to have caused inanimate objects to dance; it’s ethereal tunefulness had the capacity to whip all mortal beings within earshot into an inimitable hex.
So the legend goes, Orpheus joined the Argonauts—a famous band of sailors—on an expedition. There they encountered androgynous sea creatures known as the Sirens; a primitive historical embodiment of femmes fatales, lust, and the human capacity to self-destruct. They were intoxicating, dangerous beings that lured the sailors to their death with bewitching song. In a characteristic act of defiance, Orpheus began playing his lyre—so beautifully, in fact, that the music muffled the bloodlust of the Sirens’ alluring song.
Ka, the 46-year-old rap veteran, parses through such temptations on his latest opus, Orpheus vs. the Sirens. His backstory is directly analogous to the titular Orpheus: both are poets and musicians (Ka’s lyre being, in material contrast, his pen). The album’s title is also a striking dichotomy between hedonism (the engrossing song and beauty of the Sirens) and the self-immolation (eventual demise) that comes with allowing yourself to be swallowed whole by that kind of superficial gratification. Fast money or a 9-to-5? Pistol-whip your adversary or find common-ground? Live or die?
In a more literal sense, the sirens—”Blocks of outlaws, but all we watch out for is the sirens”—represent the of inrush of a malevolent, militarized police force. Their song—the wailing, ringing out of a police siren—should represent safety and community. But when you get closer: approaching the island where bloodthirsty creatures live; black and positioned on a street corner at the ‘wrong time’—the truth of its unfettered savagery becomes apparent. Such modern atrocities give Ka pause. There has to be light in the darkness, he seems to say.
A New York City Fire Department captain by day, a piercingly talented street-poet by nightfall, against all odds, Ka is continuing to pursue his own artistic legacy. Incredibly, it was way back in the late ‘70s when Ka began developing a writerly instinct in his hometown of Brownsville, New York.
In 1989, his cousin gave him a thousand dollars to ignite his rap ambitions. By the time the ’90s arrived, Ka had earned a modest reputation around New York’s underground with the group Natural Elements. Later, he formed one-half of the duo Nightbreed. Both were unsigned acts who displayed a steadfast loyalty to multisyllabic lyrical wickedness, but success eluded them in almost the same way he eluded the seeming need to de-intellectualize his art for clout.
Perhaps his most singular work of a distinctly singular middle-aged renaissance, Orpheus vs. the Sirens, recorded as the Hermit and the Recluse with LA producer Animoss, is further indication, if any was required, of Ka’s subtle, multi-faceted brilliance. His albums are clear-eyed vestiges of New York’s golden era of rap, characterized by sample-drive productions, with a heavy emphasis on precision rhyming and wizened grit. They take these ideals and rhyme techniques to another echelon, though.
Released this year in a DIY spirit typical of the artist—a local pop-up shop to be exact—Orpheus Vs. The Sirens maps out Greek mythology and many of its sprawling deities, demigods, heroes, and thematic underpinnings against the backdrop of Ka’s immortalized vision of Brownsville. Public buildings crumbling, family homes boarded-up, bloodshed—cyclical bloodshed and retributionary violence, an eye for an eye—can all be sensed in high-definition.
Here, the Greek myths become a direct metaphor to the intractable pains of childhood and adolescence in New York. Ka has talked before about internalizing fears while growing up surrounded by gang violence after crack began plundering his neighbourhood.
“I’m inspired by pain, by heartache,” he said in a 2015 interview for this site when asked about the experience of listening to his music. Trauma and the trappings of poverty ignite his art, but its the deconstruction of his past and his psyche which give the music its serrated edge.
Though adapting an identity to draw parallels to personal struggle is not a new literary device, Ka weaves the concepts with memories of his troubled upbringing and poverty-stricken Brooklyn neighbourhood effortlessly—samurai codes (Honor Killed the Samurai) and dystopian political brainwashing (Days With Dr. Yen Lo) were explored in past albums. In another’s hands, these lyrical motifs might falter or appear corny. But Ka is special—a precious writer with a fastidious eye for detail.
Orpheus vs. The Sirens is, without minimizing his past albums, Ka’s best realization of a concept. He blends ancient Greek symbolism with lurid dispatches of life in a community left to fend for itself with cast-iron conviction. Tales about mythical demigods traversing into a netherworld and adages forged in modern American ennui—”Those in fashion raps with passion like hostile poems/Walked by buildings of crack, could’ve been tracked by Dow Jones”—dissolve into one another like trying to remember what grains of image were real and what was imagined between a hazy dream and a distorted reality.
The exactness of his writing, where inner-rhyme-schemes flow separately and converge at once, is an ability not beholden to ancient myths, but to an unerring devotion to evocative craftsmanship. Vowels and their sounds connect in ways that would excite Doom. Lyrics sound like they were written with a quill under gaslight; endlessly reshaped manuscript smudged by sweat droplets.
How the words sound as they leave his mouth, however, have as much to say about the final product’s potency as the words themselves. His gravelly, low-pitched voice whispers and hushes—you can almost visualize blackened concentric rings of growth on a wilting, elderly tree—and only ever momentarily emphasizes, growls, or sneers. His lucidity is sacred. There is no place for hand-wringing or flying off the handle. The unfaltering droned delivery, monotone but fierce, slow but purposeful, is an impossibly perfect complement to the production.
For the most part, Ka populated his projects with psychedelic drumless beats anchored by obscure film samples, many for which are self-produced. Somehow, though, he has managed to find himself even more in another’s intuition; Animoss’ instrumentals were predetermined for Ka.
The grounding of mellifluous beats—teeming with weeping strings, spindly guitars, organs, lyre-like harps, percussive smattering—are perfectly paced to allow for Ka’s patient, minimalist rhymes to cascade. The sound is weightless yet the lyrical allusions crush like a thousand bulldozers. A sepulchral guitar punctuates “Orpheus;” a primitive electronic piano melancholy haunts “Atlas;” orchestral strings swallow everything but Ka’s rapping on “Argo;” a dust-covered organ that sounds carceral sweeps through ‘Golden Fleece’. It’s all very autumnal—a dark night in a dark world with nothing except dark thoughts.
Although melodic ad-libs are now synonymous with face tattoos of Anne Frank and rappers who persist, against better judgement, in rhyming (Kurt) Cobain with (blowing their) brain, Ka’s approach here is artful (he has noted the late Freaky Tah of ‘90s Queens group Lost Boyz as ad-lib stylistic forebears). Second dubbings of his voice—barely audible, a coarse veneer—often ghost underneath the main vocal track. Pared-down styles can be prone to being one-dimensional, but Ka’s limbless vocals flex enough lyrical muscles by themselves.
Like Orpheus, who is said to have ventured to the underworld and witnessed death, there seems to be nothing left for Ka to see or feel, which, in the cruelest of ironies, leads to a sense of unfeeling. “Devastation laced in my presentation,” Ka spits fiercely after a pronounced, hanging pause on ‘Orpheus’. The album’s sanguine denouement later on positions Ka’s lyrics less as foredooming scripture, but as openings for liberation. A stalking, bluesy guitar moves slyly as Ka signals that callously stripping humanity from everyday interactions—whether you’re a cop, a drug pusher, or a shopkeeper—can only lead to harm (“So peace to that retired cop who never drew his gun”).
Ka has, for years now, actualized on his formative days of hip-hop learning. The genre has a history of ostracizing its elder statesmen, and although that has changed in recent years, Ka is becoming ever more comfortable in the silver-haired role of sage. It’s now up to hip-hop, if not music itself, to catch up with a 46-year-old who, by way of gritted determination, has shown no signs of dropping a yard of pace.