Brooklyn rapper KA is a mythological figure. Born Kaseem Ryan in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, he fought tooth and nail through the drug-addled indifference of 1970s New York. By the 1990s, his passion for rhyming netted him a spot in the group Natural Elements, and, later, in the duo Nightbreed with his late best friend, Kev. By the early 2000s, he gave up rapping altogether to become a fireman. KA heeded his community’s call but, even still, bars danced through his head. A dampened hobby turned into a second wind when, after a fateful appearance on GZA’s 2008 album Pro Tools, KA rose renewed from the ashes.
KA’s strength comes from precision. We might as well read bars describing his native Brownsville from chiseled stone tablets: “Little niggas who didn’t turn pros is cons / Guns 24 karat, got golden arms,” he whispers on his 2011 breakout song “Cold Facts.” KA’s voice flows through the beat like a world-weary spirit revisiting old haunts. A line like, “The illest psalms written with killer palms” renders Brownsville with the detail and scope of Game of Thrones’ Westeros.
KA’s writing has always brought a measure of grandness to its most minute interiors. After whittling down his already lean beats and rhymes over the past decade, the next logical step was for the emcee to take his aesthetic to its literary extreme. On 2018’s Orpheus vs. The Sirens—a collaboration with Los Angeles producer Animoss released under the name Hermit and the Recluse—and Descendants of Cain, KA’s seventh album released this past Friday and available now on all streaming platforms, both find common ground between KA’s beloved Brownsville and Greek and Christian mythology, respectively. In KA’s hands, a concept prone to being weighty and pretentious instead feels real and immediate.
Orpheus’ opening song, “Sirens,” establishes the album’s continuity by pointing out the most obvious parallels. Iconic Greek mythological figures appear once every other bar. Over Animoss’ hypnotizing orchestral loop, KA dubs himself Orpheus, a legendary bard whose music was so powerful it could even make plants and trees dance. Car thieves hit with hard sentences enter a prison system “guarded by Cerberus;” the weight of KA’s past crimes leaves him “haunted by the Three Furies.” On his block, whirring police sirens are no different from the titular singing creatures who would lead Greek sailors to their doom.
KA eases his listeners into his challenging musical and lyrical atmosphere. Once he establishes the setting, KA begins to dig deeper. On “Fate,” he draws back the curtain on his drug-dealing past (“Deal blackjacks over 21, wasn’t playing cards”) and laments friends lost to snitches in courtrooms (“I swear these squares ain’t our peers as juries read the verdicts”). As a survivor of the streets, the song’s hook asks a burning question: “Was it my doing or fate? / Is it pre-scripted or am I doing it great?” Survivor’s guilt is the impetus behind KA’s Three Furies, and their grip has only tightened.
Animoss’ production leaves plenty of dead space for KA’s vocals to echo off the walls. His standard ghostly register expands further here like an EMP blast. This effect rings strong on “Atlas,” named for the Titan forced to carry the Earth on his shoulders for all eternity. KA equates the post-traumatic stress of his life in the streets with Atlas’ eternal burden.
“Weight of the world on my shoulders, ain’t drop it yet,” he sighs on the song’s hook. Near the end of the first verse, KA attempts to dissuade his nephew from following in his footsteps before condemning himself to his fate: “Committed in living in these hard bars; I’m doin’ years.”
Songs like “Argo” and “Golden Fleece” sift for heroics in the wreckage of KA’s memories. He chalks all his labors up to being a hero “on that Argo” for his people. He takes this mentality a few steps further in the middle of “Golden Fleece” with a list of demands:
“I want compassion from the highest; food for the lowest / Cures for the afflicted; rooves for the homeless / Direction for the misled; heat for the coldest / Love for the lonely; Peace for the soldiers.” –KA, “Golden Fleece”
The distribution of wealth and resources is KA’s golden fleece. He wears his ideals like a Spartan helmet on songs like “Hades” and “Oedipus” to protect himself from the swelling emotion of Kev’s death (“Might not ever recoup from that shit,” he admits on “Hades”) and to contain his remaining pride in his Brownsville upbringing (“Apparently we ain’t family, you can’t relate”). KA’s words have always sounded like edicts from above and Orpheus vs. The Sirens makes it easy to imagine him on a holy throne. By the album’s end, KA doesn’t share Kratos’ lust for vengeance; he’s a god of war tired of the spoils who wants to give power to the people and fade into his peace of mind.
KA understands his wants clash with the harsh realities of New York living both past and present. Descendants of Cain examines this concept further by leaving Greek myths behind and settling into the Old Testament, particularly the story of Cain and Abel.
In the Book of Genesis 4, verses 2-5, Cain and Abel are the first two sons of Adam and Eve who attempt to earn God’s favor with sacrifices. Cain, a farmer, offers grains of rice while Abel, a shepherd, offers livestock. God chooses Abel, who is then killed by a jealous Cain. Cain lies to God about the murder, resulting in Him cursing Cain and all his descendants for the foreseeable future.
Across Descendants of Cain, KA extends the story of his upbringing and being the son of a convict (“I had felon in my genes,” he admits on closer “I Love [Mimi, Moms, Kev]) to biblical proportions. On opener “Every Now and Then,” he sets the scene with less fantastical elements than on “Sirens.” Times are hard, drugs are dealt, and God has forsaken His children. His turning a blind eye doesn’t deter KA or his comrades. How could it? “Was dropped in Gotham, had to blossom to grow roots,” he says at the end of the first verse.
On “Patron Saints,” KA details how his idolization of corner boys came from both desperation and admiration. The song’s opening sample, taken from the 1953 film The Robe, drives the point home: “Shall we turn dishonest because life is hard?” KA’s patron saints got their hands dirty (“I saw Lancelots at round tables cuttin’ eighths”) and his father, KA’s Cain, left deep wounds with his actions: “Like when Pops shot at the neighbor’s shop, put one in his head / He knew how he grew me, threw me the gun, a hundred, and fled.”
KA finds nuance in the story of his father’s shootout. It doesn’t lionize or condemn him so much as it provides context. You can hear the weight of the nuance escape KA’s chest in the song’s last four words: “Our heroes sold heroin.” The song’s sparse piano loop leaves little room to escape the reality of KA’s words.
The influence of KA’s heroes seeps into “Solitude of Enoch,” named for the first of Cain’s cursed children. Among the wreckage of the drug trade, KA certainly feels cursed. Some friends didn’t make it through (“Used to call my friends money; I lost hundreds”) and the ones who did turn to violence more than words (“Had to use your fists to change your fiscal”). KA recalls a moment when his cousin challenged him to a fight, and he was ready to “leave him in a box.”
KA’s heroes have wrought a lot of pain, but he goes to great lengths to place the onus where it belongs. On “Sins of The Father,” both he and Roc Marciano lay blame on the system responsible for creating the Cains of the world, the one which left them “laced with sour grapes” and praying for fast nights to ward off starvation. Roc, in particular, is at his most vulnerable and thoughtful in years. He puts trust in lit sage and weapons in his bed in efforts to ward off demons. “My eyes still teary, nothin’ could cheer me up,” he admits, lowering his trademark Long Island mack persona for just a moment. KA and Roc embrace the cold together as they work to become better than the sum of their parts.
In the end, KA fights back against biblical prophecy with the one weapon he’s still comfortable wielding: love. On closing track “I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev),” he drops the Old Testament and confides in three pillars in his life; his wife Mimi Valdes, his mother, and, of course, Kev. Within the personal Hell of his upbringing and the physical and mental scars it left behind, KA had three angels to see him through the worst of it. Over a sedate soul sample from producer Preservation, he thanks each guardian angel personally and ends the album on a giving note.
Like many before him, KA has found an outlet in mythology to exorcise his pain. “I’m inspired by pain, by heartache,” he told writer Julian Brimmers in a 2015 interview for Passion of The Weiss. “I’m not trying to make you cry or sit and ponder. It’s just stuff that I feel, and when I feel it, I happen to have a gift of writing down exactly how I feel. By doing that, I think people can feel it too, which is beautiful.” Fitting words from one of rap’s greatest living bards.