"They know it's about that pain," raps Ka on "You Know It's About." There are many choice lines from The Night's Gambit that summarize the modus operandi of this lyricist from Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, but this vision of hip-hop as a rite of passage born out of suffering describes it best. His 2012 album is titled Grief Pedigree. He often speaks of how he struggled for years as a rapper pounding out hundreds of tracks in his home, without an audience to hear them, until his independent efforts made him a darling of the blogosphere.
That journey from anonymity to acclaim was a peripatetic one. In press notes, Ka is often listed as a member of Natural Elements, which briefly shone during the indie rap renaissance of the late '90s. But he made only sporadic appearances with that group, including a verse on Natural Elements' "Mayday" from the Lyricist Lounge compilation. He then disappeared for a decade before self-releasing his 2008 solo debut, Iron Works, which became the name of his label. (You can buy his releases at his website, brownsvilleka.) There has been much speculation over what Ka did during that prolonged absence, with one writer claiming that he now works as a fireman. Ka has refused to describe his day job, noting in an interview with Noisey, "I do have a job, and it pays for the freedom I have with my art."
His cryptic name, his re-emergence after years of silence … all of this adds to the thrilling mystery that is Ka. His Night's Gambit sustains that enigma, from the way he rhymes in a hushed tone, as if he's telling you a secret, to elliptical beats that conjure a mood of noir. There are others similar to him -- Roc Marciano, with whom he often collaborates, also uses a somber hip-hop equivalent to Arab Strap's slowcore indie rock. But Roc Marciano portrays himself as a rapacious street player, while Ka is the modest clocker hungering for a better life. He rarely speaks of legendary feats. Instead he uses riddles and challenges us to sort out what is right and wrong, truth and fiction. There's no one quite like him.