New York rapper, Kemba (FKA YC The Cynic), shows off his new name and sound on his latest project Negus.
An album packed with complexity, creativity, and impressive storytelling, Kemba’s name might be new, but by no means is he an amateur to the hip-hop game. Beyond good writing, this album truly shines for its storytelling through sampling and dedication to the theme of perception. Anyone mildly interested in a solid concept album, topical and reflective commentary, or in a fresh voice in hip-hop, has got to stop sleeping and listen to Negus.
Negus is a story told right from the title, which comes from the Amharic word meaning king. When pronounced, it holds a tight resemblance to the n-word, while carrying a polar opposite meaning. The degrees of separation between the title and slur are so few and yet so great, a dichotomy that Kemba plays with throughout the project. Thus, the title of the record becomes an exercise in the power of mindfulness and perception, and embodies the journey of “black is beautiful” that drives several songs as well as the main sample throughout the album.
The intro track follows this journey, almost delivering a mission statement of the importance of “teaching that boy to fly” as opposed to teaching him to run. Yet, the track is also dark in that it reveals how eager onlookers are to clip his wings. We can gather here that the track is referencing a fear of black excellence that permeates white American culture. Said fear transitions well into the second track “Caesar’s Rise,” which opens with menacing and atmospheric drums. These drums are tucked behind the prominent snare and help develop the opening lyric “does this shit make you intimidated?” From the get-go, Kemba is not shy about what his music is trying to accomplish. Instead, his themes are direct and carry a confident swagger, as opposed to being off putting and obvious.
“Caesar’s Rise” also touches on Kemba’s desire to reclaim language. The majority of the second verse is spent denouncing charged and racial “microaggressions,” and consequently combatting them with the strength he learned growing up with his peers. He plays with language again, much like he does with the title, and turns phrases from oppressive to inspiring on the eighth song “Greed:” “Fox News calls me ape, well if I’m an ape, Imma be the apex.” In flipping the racist tones, Kemba reclaims power, an act that is central to the narrative of the project.
There are several storytelling elements at play, but the strongest of them has to be the clips taken from the 1968 CBS News documentary Black History-Lost, Stolen, Or Strayed?. While the other devices Kemba uses are good, clips for a police altercation and from a news interview, they’re overshadowed by the documentary. Certainly not unnecessary, the other samples aren’t as well developed or integrated as the doc, making them less memorable. That being said, throughout Negus, we get bytes from the end of the documentary, set in a classroom where the teacher is hoping to instill a sense of pride into his young students before they go off into a society that is obsessed with taking that pride away.
This scene is played several times throughout the album, but is cut off at different points in order to facilitate a developing story. On the third track “Kings and Queens,” a spaced out cut boasting more of that swagger in its declarations of black men and women really being kings and queens, we get the first dose of this scene. Quite thoughtfully, Kemba cuts the sound right as a student is about to name his nationality as “Afro-american.” Over the course of the album, this scene runs for longer and longer, until we arrive at impassioned declarations of “I’m black and beautiful!” and the students realizing they are “brilliant,” despite what oppression they’re sure to face. Consequently, the teacher’s reads explosive and methodical, much like Kemba’s delivery, making it seem as if this sample is a natural extension of the album.
Beyond superb storytelling, Negus is also a pleasure to listen to. Packed with dark and sinister beats and Kemba’s unique voice, you don’t have to zero in on the layers of this project to enjoy it on a casual level. Songs like “Already” have that ominous and undulating quality that make them perfect for bumping in the car at night. On “Heartbeat,” Kemba plays with auto-tune, a risk that is almost successful if not for how the autotuned intro overstays its welcome on the track. Then we have “Psyrens (Curious),” which features a bouncier beat and flow, and helps to brighten up the aesthetic of the project.
After listening to “Psyrens (Curious),” it’s obvious that the project is beginning for another moment or two of relief to keep it from getting too heavy. While the production style isn’t entirely stale by the end of the project, and while Kemba’s delivery works well within the sound he’s putting forth on Negus, this song is proof that he can fit himself nicely into other styles. I’d love to see him explore offshoots of, and find fresh approaches to, the dark and looming grooves he put together for this project. Gritty and dusty might be the East Coast way, but there’s no reason not to innovate.
Negus is, from start to finish, a wonderfully executed and politically charged story of self-love in the face of oppression. It’s a ripe showcase of how creative Kemba can get, and also flashes great potential for where he can take his sound. There are moments where his creativity gets ahead of him; namely, using three samples to tell a story when one clearly more successful than the others. Yet, I read that as less of a drawback and more of a promise that he will keep on delivering. Sharp creative focus will come in time. The project manages to be highly specific and introspective, while also presenting a good-to-hear rap album. With this record, Kemba has caught quite a few eyes, and from what I’ve heard, his career is on the up-and-up.