Roundtable: Ka’s ‘Honor Killed the Samurai’

Gerthquake: Yooooooo. Welcome to our first roundtable. Let’s get started. Don’t call it a comeback.

So for this week I selected Ka’s Honor Killed the Samurai, which came out last year, in the summer I think. I picked it as a topic of discussion partly because I think it’s a pretty good album, and partly because I felt like it sat at the intersection of two interests many of us share as a group: rap and kung-fu films.

True to its name, Honor Killed the Samurai is samurai-themed. But in this case the samurai is Ka, a mild-mannered rapper/full-time firefighter (seriously, look it up) who lives in NYC’s Brownsville neighborhood. The warrior life of the samurai is a metaphor for the struggle of getting ahead in the hardscrabble of city life under adverse circumstances, but it’s also a metaphor for the artistic process itself, as shown by the intermittent narrations about samurais stopping on the war path to compose poetry.

But also: Fuck metaphors. At the end of the day I wouldn’t like this album if it didn’t have bars. Ka is a good rapper. He’s not super-showy, though — his voice never really rises above a pretty intense mumble. I think he handles the lion’s share of his production himself, and that’s where I think this thing really shines. The beats here are barely beats at all, just a foggy soup of samples and sound effects. There aren’t really any bad songs, but there aren’t a ton of obvious standouts other than the first and last tracks; it’s a short album, and it sustains a mood instead of climaxing. The drums are extremely  spare, but they’re also really effective, in this writer’s opinion. I love the muted cymbal hits that cut through the mix on “Conflicted,” which starts the album off really strong. (The terrifying bass/stringed instrument sound that starts the song off also never fails to blow me away.) It’s lonely music: I got into Ka in the dead of winter on early morning drives for work, before sunrise, the temp hovering around zero, fingers numbing on the steering wheel.

Verdict: Pocket, despite the lack of conventional drums.

So what do you other cats think of this album? Do you like the beats? Does Ka’s grim intensity convince you or lapse into melodrama? Does the weird narration enhance the mood or weird you out? Overall, does it get you right in the 36 chambers, or does it make you want to commit seppuku?

Connor: Your comparison between this album and a kung-fu movie is apt, Gerth, for more reasons than just the obvious “Guys, I’m totally like these super awesome romanticized warriors”. I’ve seen countless martial arts action films from emerging Asian film markets, and the one thing I can say about the genre is that they tend to lack in spectacle compared to our average blockbusters, but have good fundamentals: quality narratives and stylistic fights. In Honor Killed the Samurai, I think we see the rap album equivalent. There’s something so deconstructed, so raw, about the album; it doesn’t feel like so many of the other rap albums that came out last year. None of the pop-y flavor that saturates the radios and party-mixes, and none of more funky or hip-hop flavor that a purist might be looking for. Even the spoken word nature of the album separates it from other subdued raps, like the “Real Friends”-“Wolves” middle section of Pablo which comes to mind. Even Kanye at his most melancholy is more busy than Ka ever is.

Fundamentals are worth their weight in Nippon steel, and Honor Killed the Samurai has great fundamentals. The beats are soft and evocative, and the lyrics succeed on both ear-feel and content. Right now, I’m listening to it for the fourth time, and as much as I appreciate it more than on first listen, I don’t expect to come back to it for a long time. I don’t think that means I didn’t like it: there are very few kung-fu movies I revisit regularly (Red Cliff; Hero; Crouching Tiger…; Enter the Dragon; and Drunken Master are the only exceptions I can think of). Maybe it just feels more valuable as a learning experience, a signpost to other albums and styles.

Preliminary verdict: 6.5/10 toast servings, “That Cold and Lonely” earns standout of the album for rad bells.

Alex: I’ve only listened to the first few songs but so far I’m kind of bored. I can’t understand much of what Ka is saying and he doesn’t show much range in volume or emotion. And the beats are a little too sparse for me. Like, I can’t tell where the beat is. The album reminds me of a watered-down Madvillainy but less focused and less bumpin’. I think I just need to listen to it more.

Gerthquake: Alex and Connor, your takes remind me that I 1) need to burn Madvillainy onto a CD so I can listen to it in my car, and 2) still need to watch all of the kung-fu movies (except Hero) you referenced by name, Connor. (I went on a Wu-Tang Clan kick during the fall, so it’s likely at this point that the number of rap albums that sample kung-fu movies I’ve listened to is higher than the number of actual kung-fu movies I’ve watched.)

Jason (East-J): Hey all. Sorry I’m a bit late to the party, I have had a pretty weird week. After noticing the obvious warrior metaphor (which I was surprised no one had ever put together before) I really liked the album my first time through. I usually don’t like albums at first but Honor Killed The Samurai flew by.   I listened primarily at work which I think was a good setting if it did make me a bit sleepy at times. Some of the repetitive beats really felt almost lullaby like which,  when paired with the whispering lyrics, were very calming. I tried to share this with Nicole while we were driving back from Indy and I found this is not really very good social music as I was forced constantly to choose between hearing the lyrics and interacting with my passenger. That I think is the core flaw for me. The beats are so sparse and repetitive that the value of the lyrics is inflated. If I am not paying attention or don’t really associate with the lyrical content there isn’t a ton left to hear. Also, I don’t know if “Chill-Hop” is a recognized genre, but if it is not, I just invented it and this album defines it.

I did like it but I don’t see myself listening to it again. Good once or twice but not a classic by any means. 13.5/20.

Connor: J, I think it’s interesting you characterized it as “chill-hop”. I’d almost say it was the opposite. I felt that the simple beats and quiet lyrics monopolized my attention, where for a chill album I’d like to be able to lean back and let it wash over me. When I tried to do that with Honor…I felt like I just stopped listening to it all. I don’t know, just my experience. Anyone agree or disagree?

Spencer: I would agree with you, Connor. This album was less Ka and more meh. I found him to be a less captivating version Earl Sweatshirt. Not to say he isnt talented, but I guess less polarizing than maybe I was expecting from a Gerth pick.