The first time that I saw “The Warriors”, Walter Hill’s cult film, I thought that New York had to be the most dangerous city in the world. I was a kid, and the image of Manhattan as a ghost town with empty trains in the underground, streets full of rats and rubbish, buildings in ruins, and gangs involved in a manhunt in the middle of the night couldn’t have been more terrifying. Terrifying and fascinating, of course - it was hell, but also paradise. It’s hard to explain. Because as frightening as it was, it was impossible not to imagine yourself as a member of the Furies, dressed like a baseball player, with your face painted, chasing after the Warriors. Years later, that’s the same feeling that some hip hop albums give you; their songs invite you to submerge yourself once again in the image of a filthy, grey, violent city in a permanent state of tension, always on guard. “The Infamous”, “War Report”, “Living Proof”, “Enter The 36 Chambers” and “Wanted: Dead Or Alive” are masterpieces of the genre, but they are also the cornerstones of the crudest, most fearsome portrait that has ever been made of the streets of the Big Apple.
But in the mid-90s, with mayor Rudolf Giuliani’s intensification of cleaning and security policies, the rezoning of some previously run-down, depressed areas like Harlem or Brooklyn, and also the musical softening of rap; the capital of the world became a safer, more comfortable place that no longer aroused fear or gave you that nervous tingle. This, applied to hip hop, became one of the reasons for the artistic slump that the New York scene underwent around the turn of the century – it was disconcerted by the dilemma of disturbing and upsetting listeners with exaggerated stories that weren’t the reality, which no longer bore a relationship to what was happening on the streets. New York wasn’t scary anymore, and neither were the lyrics of many of those rappers who had made a career for themselves and gained stature thanks to that.
In 2010 many of us got that old feeling back thanks to “Marcberg”, Roc Marciano’s spotless debut. It was the best album of the year as far as your truly is concerned, and one of those recordings that could knock down a welterweight without even batting an eye. Nothing had changed in our mental image of the American city - which we continued to see as a very reliable, comforting tourist destination - but this album made it clear that all that glitters isn’t gold, and that if you got too sure of yourself, you could find yourself taking a sudden drop into the gutters of an apple that was shiny on the outside, but infested with worms on the inside. It was an unpleasant, very harsh album, in which bad humour and rage mixed with desperation, cooked up with just the right amount of realism (neither condescending or fictional). “Marcberg” is an opus magnum not only because of its lyrical or sonic features - both of which are excellent and perfectly blended - but also because of its insistence on offering us a faithful, intimidating portrait of the least visible part of today’s New York.
This is a role that “Grief Pedigree”, the “Marcberg” of 2012, could also successfully play. It is the second solo work of Brooklyn MC KA, a hardened veteran foot soldier of the Big Apple scene, an original member of Natural Elements. If you aren’t familiar with or don’t remember his first release, “The EP”, do yourself a favour and check it out; he is a free agent on the underground scene and, not coincidentally, a friend and collaborator of Roc Marciano himself. He signed and sang on “We Do It”, the only vocal collaboration included on Marciano’s debut, a clue signalling the more-than-just-personal connections between these two lone wolves determined to bring back the lost glory of New York rap. They have the same set-up and mannerisms: KA also handles all of his own album production, and the only outside collaborator is his buddy, in an endless exchange of favours that has more symbolic and conceptual value than it does monetary. Like “Marcberg”, the portrait he paints of the New York underworld steers clear of self-complacency or an excess of film-like imagination; it seeks to give a raw, clinical, evocative description of life in Brownsville, the most run-down part of Brooklyn, with the highest crime rate.
KA talks about what he has seen and continues to see in his neighbourhood: inhuman poverty, hustling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, zombies wandering around abandoned lots, the daily struggle for survival, the fear of being caught by the police or hit by a bullet, and the routine of desperation. Think of the first or third season of “The Wire” and you’ll be right. Change Baltimore to New York, Hamsterdam to Brownsville, and David Simon for this prodigious MC who spits out high-octane poetry in every one of his verses, and you will have what you are looking for. Any MC with half a brain can rap about episodes of explosive random violence on the street corner, but very few can do so with the lyricism, poetic perfection, and emotional solidity that this great author gives to his songs. If this critic were a teacher in a rough school in the US, he would relentlessly make his students memorise and analyse “Decisions”, one of the greatest, most moving songs that has ever been written about what it means to live in a depressed neighbourhood. It gives you goose bumps, but not just because of its execution, lyrical structure, and substance (the synopsis: how a wrong decision can turn into a life sentence), but because of the way that it integrates concepts like destiny, fatalism, individual will or freedom without making a single value judgement or moral proclamation.
“Grief Pedigree” contains more talent and creativity than can be assimilated in a single listen. You have to go back to it again and again to catch everything that is going on inside of it; it isn’t that it’s inaccessible or opaque on purpose, or nasty per se, but there is just so much depth of field in its lyrical unfolding that one, two, or three passes just aren’t enough. Furthermore, each time, you discover abrasive new quotes on big subjects and concerns: anxiety and uncertainty on a daily basis living in a war zone (“This gonna be the summer they come for me”), credibility in the story and creative suffering (“Niggas spit their shit I bleed mine”), survival and the habit of a colossal struggle to keep going (“Up against Goliath to bring butter home”); each song is a world that requires your full attention. However far away you feel from his habitat and stomping ground, he manages to catch you up and take you to the front line.
All of this would be lame, or it wouldn’t make any sense, if KA’s production wasn’t up to the challenge; or simply, if he had chosen the wrong course of action, one contrary to what he proposes and sets out in his rhymes. But as if he were entirely aware of the possibility of this problem arising, the rapper does one of the best production jobs of the season. KA slows down the tempo, putting the listener into an obsessive, insidious state of trance with his loops; he applies his method with lethargic, dizzying, altered funk. It’s slow, disorientating, and inimitable. The beats aren’t as aggressive as “Marcberg”, for example - they have a softer, anticlimactic composition - but they are the best beats possible for the flow and poetic density of the lyrics, fitting them like a glove. “No Downtime” and “Decisions” are the only two accessible outbursts. They are brief flashes of soulful light on an exemplary trip, where the Brownsville rapper takes a classic, identifiable idea of the genre - boom bap, the hard sound of the 90s - to a radical new level of sound experimentation. There is an amazing coherence and interaction between music and texts, as if they had never been created separately. One idea, one vision, fully satisfied and made into a reality: “Grief Pedigree” is the best hip hop album so far in 2012. And even more importantly: the most beautiful.