Music in Review: “A Martyr’s Reward”

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The Winonan’s music reviewer rates “A Martyr’s Reward” by Ka 3.5/5 stars

Matthew Drewry, features editor

If you haven’t heard of Ka before, I can’t blame you. Ka, real name Kaseem Ryan, is a real life rap superhero, a New York City fire captain moonlighting as a reclusive rapper, often releasing under pseudonyms (Natural Elements, Nightbreed, Dr. Yen Lo, Hermit and the Recluse) and without any promotion to his music.
Ka first surfaced on tracks with GZA in early 2008, continuing on to release his own albums on his label “Iron Works.” Ka first drew eyes in 2016 after being unmasked in the New York Post for his anti-police lyrics, and for his album “Honor Killed the Samurai.”
“Honor Killed the Samurai” embodies the stylistic ethos of Ka: a tight focus on the specific thematic elements album, simple but hypnotic beat loops, and hyperminimal lyrics using homophones to create multiple double meanings and entendres.
2018 saw Ka teaming up with producer Animoss under the moniker “Hermit and The Recluse” to release “Orpheus vs. the Sirens”, themed around the stories of Greek mythology rather than Japanese culture and the samurai mythos.
Ka followed this release with 2020’s “Descendents of Cain”, of similar style, focused on the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
It is roughly 15 months on the heels of this release we hear the new album “A Martyr’s Reward” running 41 minutes, almost entirely produced by Ka, focusing on his troubled youth in New York.
While I enjoyed this album extensively, I can’t recommend this to every listener. It is challenging but rewarding and beautiful. This is hardcore, lyrically driven old school hip hop more akin to poetry than pop much akin to the late MF DOOM. It is far better suited to a sitdown with the lyric sheet than to bump in a car with your friends, and if you’re not actively listening it will pass you right by.
The simplicity of “A Martyr’s Reward” is intentional, precise and hypnotic. There is not a line wasted on this project, even from its sole feature, Navy Blue. There is not a single beat switch on the project, just bars on bars on bars.
The biggest themes on this album are atonement, and corrupted youth. The “Martyr” is Ka’s childhood, with his reward being his current status in society. There are also mentions of Ka’s alter ego as a firefighter and his experiences of societal racism. One of the most impactful instances of this is in “All My Heart”
“No verdicts, not guilty since block filthy, no innocence here
Since seared by sin, all I ever been is sincere/If you hear I’m on the premises, every premise severe/Though my rank capped at captain, I did it admirably
Cause of my race, took hits from the start, it never staggered me
Knew I was black back then, so at ten I had tenacity
No tracks are vacuous, my pact is to do it masterfully
When them planes crashed, Ka did his task in the catastrophe
I dug and I held when them towers fell, how dare you try to hassle me?”
These bars exemplify his roots in arrested development, experience within the New York fire department, and even the aforementioned The New Yorker article criticizing his lyrics. But as a whole they demonstrate Ka’s style; every bar has multiple literary elements, internal references, and double entendre while also connecting to the theme of the album.
This skill in writing is both the greatest strength and weakness of the album. The cerebral depth Ka adds to each and every track is amazing, but his delivery and cadence rarely move beyond a steady oration with the exception of him rapping double time on “We Living/Martyr.” The same can be said of the beats. While chilling and haunting, they are very plain. It is clearly intentional to showcase the rapping, they can be boring to some listeners.
In conclusion, if you like the Ka’s style, this is a great record, up there with “Honor Killed the Samurai” and “Orpheus and the Sirens” with a lot of depth and backstory to Ka’s life and upbringing. If it isn’t, I don’t think you’ll be impressed. I am, however, a fan and I give this record a 3.5/5.