Brownsville veteran, Ka, graces the summer with an album that is as gripping as it is elegantly understated.
Honor Killed the Samurai is rife with Ka’s unshakable lyrics and emotional turmoil. The album is a testament to how much beauty can be packed into a tone built on chilling simplicity. A modernized answer to Liquid Swords, best paired with hot chocolate and a snowy day, Honor Killed the Samurai will last us from the coat-tails of summer all the way through the winter, which means it’s time to stop sleeping, because this project will go down as a staple of 2016.
In terms of creativity, Ka does not disappoint. The lead sample across this project is a reading of “Bushido: The Soul of Japan.” Each book excerpt helps structure a parallelism between the life and death of a samurai as it relates to life and death on the streets. Despite the somber mood, there is an unmistakable level of empowerment within likening gang life to the life of a samurai. Many of the lyrics on this project come off as cautionary tales from Ka, acting as a type of sage across the album. The samples work with these lyrics to advance the story and help us arrive at the title, that is, honor or pride, killing off a kid in the streets as it does a warrior.
For its creative edge, the album does not hide behind dense imagery. The most emotionally taxing bars Ka pens are also the most simplistic in structure. A line like “to get what we need, we did what we must” packs an extreme amount of conflict into just ten words. Moreover, there’s a heavy tragedy working through the album as the line “always been conflicted” reverberates at the end of the intro track and, implicitly, throughout the rest of the project. Yet, the brisk quality of the lyrics doesn’t detract from Ka’s expert wordplay. The hook on the seventh track “Ours,” translates anxieties over the passing of time and the need to capture a moment into a succinct double entendre: “these seconds, these minutes are ours.”
Don’t let the single lines I’ve picked out fool you either, the entire album, bar for bar, is as powerful as it is quotable. Honor Killed the Samurai is a definite rap genius album. None of the emotions Ka puts forward on the album come across as disingenuous or profiteering. Despite the whisper-like cadence of his flow, Ka’s voice still manages to reflect his grappling with pain, right and wrong, and the notion of survival at what costs. In fact, the quiet nature of his vocals make the experience more impactful, draws us in closer to catch every last word Ka has to say as if he’s right next to us, telling us a story both weighty and confidential.
On the topic of production, Ka’s beats do not have the driving percussion and synths that we’ve gotten used to. The lack of overstated instrumentals works to keep our attention squarely on the masterful lyricism Ka injects into this album. Each beat on this project is minimalistic to a point, existing in a supporting role to the aesthetic of the album. We have the dizzy and windy arpeggios on “Just,” and the isolating winter bells on “That Cold and Lonely.” These production choices develop the chilling tone, which compliments the main themes of desperation and streetlife.
While the production is overall subdued, do not mistake it as lazy. Instead, the instrumentals on this project are loaded with minute details that reveal themselves over the course of the track. The beats don’t carry the album, nor do they grate the ear; however, they accent the record and Ka’s delivery with pop-ins of nuance or surprising juxtapositions. Take for example the breathy puffing sound bridging the verses into the hooks on “Mourn at Night.” Meant to simulate a gun being fired, these gentle exhales stray from the booming blast of a bullet and instead make the experience of the hook more intimate. We are being invited to lean into the hook, invited try to catch those breaths again on the second verse. Ka uses the production here to manipulate the space between us and his storytelling, and he does it well.
Ka is a master of his sound. Honor Killed the Samurai proves that for the entirety of its forty minute run time. His music is mature and engaging, but it requires an attentive and patient ear. For all the time Ka spends within his current sound, though, I can’t help but wonder what other notes would compliment his delivery. It would be a pleasure to see him experiment with warmer guitar riffs and livelier leads, but my desire to see a great evolution in his style does not detract from the level of perfection that he’s brought it to on this album. For all its gritty descriptions of violence and crime, this project still invites you to plug in your headphones, brew up a hot drink, and stop sleeping on Honor Killed the Samurai.