|Orpheus in Hades (Beronneau, 1897).|
"Judging from my cover, each chapter's a revelation"
An emcee who delivers even one artfully arrowed dart or whole song weaved of references from Greek mythology would be worthy of praise. What Brownsville rapper Ka did on my favorite album of 2018, Orpheus vs. the Sirens (a collaboration with producer Animoss under the group name Hermit and the Recluse), deserves accolades of the utmost extreme. This ten-track album must be the closest thing Hip Hop has come to James Joyce's epic novel Ulysses. Whereas Joyce structured the 18 episodes of his modern text Ulysses around the wanderings of Odysseus, the 10 songs of Orpheus vs. the Sirens follow the adventures of Orpheus accompanying the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. Notice how the style of the title on the cover of Orpheus vs. the Sirens even resonates with the cover of the American edition of Ulysses, as seen below:
|Orpheus vs. the Sirens by Hermit and the Recluse (2018).|
|Ulysses, by James Joyce (American edition, 1934). |
[The book had been banned in the States since its appearance in 1922.]
Both works aim to imbue modern urban life with the symbols of ancient myths. Just as Joyce alchemically blended the themes of Homer's Odyssey with a day in the life of 1904 Dublin in attempt to allow readers to experience patterns of eternal themes inherent in everyday life, Ka invokes mythological themes to transmute his experiences growing up in the streets of crack-era Brownsville into a timeless, transcendent art form that heals. The music indeed has intended healing properties for the listener, as expressed for instance on "Orpheus": "The good said it, I'm hood medic rushing you medicine"---but it's also healing for Ka himself. His rhymes are confessional, a means of coming to terms with psychological trauma in attempt to bring himself balance, an approach best expressed in these lines from "Oedipus":
I'm trying to use my talents for tale to balance my scale
Shit was rigid, only visit to the Island was jail
Arrived in Riker's... with moms from diapers
In this sense, Ka's focus on mythology manifests the notion proclaimed by minds like Joyce, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and long before them the Hindus---that the gods and travails of myth are not simply debunked archaic versions of stuff that happened a long time ago, they are instead timeless components and dramas alive and present in the psyche. His personal journeys and struggles become akin to the clash of the Titans, or Oedipus and the Sphinx, or Daedalus and the Labyrinth.
Every morning wake never caught a break, revealed I was jinxed
To be the man deciphers life's riddle or get killed by the Sphinx
Quietly spoke volume on my drama
Since then I been in war
It's no bull, my lab was in the labyrinth
just like the Minotaur
Notice that last line, placing his home inside the inescapable labyrinth of Daedalus, blending a specific time/place with the timeless world of Greek myth. One word I would use to describe this album: ingenuity. The concept is genius and was manifested masterfully. The songs are loaded with clever lines and subtle connections crafted throughout each verse. Also the autobiographic details and the artistic approach feel genuine. A lot of rappers share harsh stories of a drug-dealing past, with Ka it feels genuine. There's a raw, almost painful honesty in his confessions of committing grimy acts amid the ruins of 70s-80s Brownsville. "Careful, everything I say is admissible." Also, most rappers talk about their work as being art, but with this album the aesthetic quality feels unmistakably genuine.
Through the atmosphere created by Animoss this album is an experience, an intoxicating hit of medicinal musical elixir. Evocative, entrancing dusty loops, mostly without drums, are laced with the parables, metaphors, and imagery of Ka, whose form of spoken poetry comes thru a style all his own. The only comparison I can conceive of is that, with his deep voice, penchant for wisdom, and passion for elaborate wordplay, he's a combo of Guru, The GZA, and MF DOOM. While adhering to the patented grimy New York City strain of rap in its purest form, the mic presence of Ka is also different, unique, fresh. He hums bars in a hushed monotone, grants space to let the beat breathe between lines, or quietly embeds his gravelly vocals down into the dusty droning layers of the beat rather than dominate it with his deep voice. Ka has a druidic presence, reciting ritual words and hooks with a calm, confident flow. The overall effect feels like something both epic and ethereal, just what you would hope for based on the title.
With a tight 32-minute run-time, the album is fairly short but also lacking any sort of filler and rich in replay value. I went months playing only this album and the rest of Ka's catalog. Especially with the backdrop of insanity going on in the world, Orpheus vs the Sirens felt like an important guide. Ka blends Greek myth and his memories of Brownsville slums to form a realm outside of time, yet thru this blend Ka shares wisdom for our current turbulent moment in time. One wouldn't think of Ka as a political rapper, but Orpheus vs the Sirens in subtle, oblique ways is the most political we've ever heard him. He mocks our Twitter president on "Atlas": "Many tours locked in wars, won't be troubled by a witch hunt." He also touches on the racial hatred simmering in America, observing on "Golden Fleece," "No man programmed for building, they'd rather you delete us/ It seems the half of you that hate us is the half of you that need us." The most potent response to racial resentment comes on the track "Orpheus": "They hold a grudge for my melanin, on the strength of my dubs I'll get love as a skeleton." A part of what makes this album so appealing is that it also maintains an overall positive view. Darkly raw, honest, informed, grimy, yet maintaining hope, trying to warn and awaken while providing genuine art in an innovative style.
Graft quotes, burdened as if heard of the last hope
Armed with alarming bars that keep the craft woke
I bounce the pen, I counsel men: cast vote
Clearly, Ka has been affected by the times and he uses his music as a vehicle for change. The past is always a key part of Ka's work, his way of bringing himself into balance, but through using timeless mythic allusions he also crafts a transcendent piece of art that attempts to uplift the future.
I'm going to briefly walk thru each track, with particular focus on Ka's penchant for great hooks. There's plenty of enticing wordplay all throughout, but the hooks especially stand out to me on this album.
A magnificent track in all respects. Animoss earns credit for creating a cohesive audio experience across the whole album and part of that is his adept touch with deploying old film clips about Orpheus. The album's opening is a perfect example, the brief skit of Orpheus negotiating his way onto the ship Argo feeding into the smoothly evocative string melody creates a cinematic vibe.
An orchestral revery of gently ascending violins provides the atmosphere within which Ka spins the album's densest collection of mythological references. Harpies, Cerberus, the Three Furies, Pegasus, Hydra, the Chimera, are some of the myriad mythical figures packed into these bars.
Most impressive to me is this line because of the nod to Odysseus fooling the Cyclops by telling him his name was "No One": "I told son, don't be fooled by no one, like the Cyclops."
A consistent theme throughout the album is the imprinted trauma from earliest experience, growing up poor in rough circumstances, now healing emotional wounds by transforming them into a priceless art, as opposed to raps that reel off material worth: "If mommy couldn't buy me nothing why she brought me to earth? All this uncertainty was hurting me, I fought it from birth/ I'm here writing this priceless, they just reporting they worth."
The video for this song is also excellent:
The hook here stands out, looking back on what he lived through (the powerful refrain "We made it through, we made it through, we made it through") and questioning the existence of fate:
"Survived ruins, was it my doing or fate?
Is this pre-scripted or am I doing it great?"
The verses are virtuoso combos of internal rhymes, layered metaphors, word games and wisdom to ponder. "Nothing sweet, I couldn't eat from them unsavory rolls/ paid the price on my life to deciph, now breaking the codes/ Book assignments for crooked minors went straight to the prose/ the symbol of grace in genuine place where fake is exposed."
Again there's reference to the confident resolve built out of struggles from his earliest days: "Since natal held it stable when shit was most critical."
My favorite track on the album, to me it feels like this track gets the most out of what Ka and Animoss were aspiring for with the sound and style of this album. There's a lot to love here: the beat respires with a droning pulse of lo-fi 80s-sounding synths, Ka delivers many of the album's best lines on this track alone, and his delivery has a nuanced maneuvering thru the different notes in the beat.
There's so much to unpack out of all these lines, but here's one example from verse one:
They try themes but Ka seems rarer, I'm a tailor
Who swams mudded, find the landlubber who's a sailor
He says while other rappers may deploy themes in their rhymes, Ka brings a more rare approach. His lyrics are sewn together in unique fashion, hence "Ka seams rarer, I'm a tailor." Also simply "Ka seems rarer" than the others but also a play on Ka's name Kaseem Ryan, like "Kaseem is rarer." The album begins with the story of Orpheus trying to get on board the ship Argo but he has no experience of the sea, hence "the landlubber who's a sailor"---but he's saying his flow is akin to a sailor floating across or swimming muddy waters. He boasts of being "sick" but not sea-sick ("never boated"), rather he's ill with the quotes. "Quiet as it's kept, the lines are select."See I'm sick, never boated only quoted like a dealer
For me this part of verse two is the height of the song:
"Call for raw, I'm supplying connect
From there, became a man they admire and respect
Top spin once popped in, won't require an eject
So much killing, even when building we brung a tool
Mentally jogging my memory, the only way I run a jewel
My sense the truest principle, I could run a school
From impoverished home now got it sewn, I spun a spool"
Among many great lines, notice in that last one the callback to the aforementioned sewing/tailor imagery.
The chords are reminiscent of late-90s RZA, and the heavy drums in the beat's bridge give the album it's only injection of banging percussion. I love the chorus here, simply clever poetry: "Around the atlas got respect, weight of the world on my shoulders, ain't drop it yet." Besides the Atlas metaphor, this is Ka declaring that now that he's achieved the mantle of respect as a dope emcee, the burden on his shoulders becomes keeping that respect, not dropping the ball when his devoted fans have high expectations. Instead, he delivers.
The tales of his past are grimy and honest. Not only was he doing crime daily as a kid, it wasn't him going astray---this was the life of his family: "My duty, did something daily could've got me in juvy/ They more than allowed of me, proud of me if ya knew me... Point and bang, didn't join a gang, my family was live." The personal confessions throughout this album run deep, and what's more powerful is Ka's acknowledgment of shame and prayers for resolution: "In my end days, pray I save more lives than I take... I pray I save more lives than I take."
The final verse of four bars at the end features the best flow executed on the album, rapidly maneuvering the syllables of his dense poetry: "Kept patiently raced basically for my finished lines, pray my father's harvest is not bothered for the sins that's mines."
Nicely drawn-out strings and a shrewd use of a single repeated snare tap from Animoss. It's another song with a great hook, this being the refrain featured at the end:
"Won't peep weakness, though my scars show
Disappear in history or be hero on that Argo
Some bail, set sail every harb' though
I'd rather stand, be the man the gods know"
I love the vocab in these opening bars and the nutritional imagery:
"Flow aquatic, known alone for my slow hypnotic
Though some fault and throw salt, kept a low systolic
Toast with fire holsters from live culture, probiotic"
Consistently reiterating his stoic calmness, he drops this bar and then patiently steps back into silence to let the beat breathe before resuming: "Infinite temperament, if mentioned it, know I got it."
This line sums up his appeal quite well:
"The people love me cuz I speak that ugly elegant"
6. Golden Fleece
A fantastic song with a beautifully arranged beat from Animoss, sewn together of a dusty guitar riff, haunting organ keys, and heavenly chimes. The chemistry of sounds creates a phantasmal vibe and Ka unveils ardent prayers of hope:
"I want compassion from the highest
Food for the lowest
Cures for the afflicted
Roofs for the homeless
Direction for the misled
Heat for the coldest
Love for the lonely
Peace for the soldiers"
Firmly holding onto hope though he may be, Ka is also realistic about the role of poor righteous teacher in society:
"Was born where a wrong turn on this difficult pavement
could be the difference if you live in riches or a vagrant
Or fight this poor and righteous, only wicked get the payment
And listen you're amiss if you think this is entertainment"
7. Punishment of Sisyphus
This is my least favorite track on the album mainly because the beat seems to drag and thus so does Ka's delivery. Yet the verses are solid and as usual loaded with intricate wordplay and once again the chorus is catchy poetry.
Another track I don't love and yet it fits so well into the album sonically. While I'm not super into tracks 7 & 8, they still contain great lyrics and the beats cohesively fit in with the rest.
Another track with a memorable refrain, playing with the family relations theme of Oedipus: "Apparently we ain't family, you can't relate." I love the pattering drums from Animoss here, too.
Speaking of family, Ka throughout this song touches on the death of his friend and former collaborator Kev:
"They brand build, I speak the shit that got my man killed
Play our song, get hated on by those who can't stand real"
There's also a notable Star Wars reference in "These clones around me hunting for a bounty like Boba Fett."
10. Companion of Artemis
An excellent beat with a slick pace, the cadence here prowls in representing the huntress Artemis. Once again Ka brings a good hook, one which embeds into the beat nicely---"You either hunter or the prey, Pray you a hunter before hunters prey on you today." Besides the last verse of "Atlas" this is the best flow displayed by Ka as he maneuvers this beat nimbly and provides "Raps of wisdom, not acquisition, we stand polar."
Overall, while I may not completely love every single track on the album, I think the consistent sonic atmosphere shaped by Animoss contributes to the 10 tracks of Orpheus vs. the Sirens being better than the sum of its parts. There's also less room for error on such a short project, and without any real flops there's nothing to skip, making this the kind of album you can play on repeat while letting every song breathe, allowing you to decipher more and more of the clever designs weaved into the authentically artistic rhymes of Ka.