During times of turmoil and civil unrest, we the people can always rely on one thing, great music that reflects the times. I know, much of the music that’s being cooked up feels like some microwaved day-old cardboard based, tomato paste flavored pizza from Little Caesars, but there are still artists that are cheffing up savory material.
Just this year alone we’ve had Chicago’s Vic Mensa drop There’s Alot Going On and Compton’s YG put out Still Brazy. Two amazing projects that reflected not only the times but their inner struggles as a black man in America. Although overlooked, another artists to release an immaculate socially relevant rap project this year is Bronx native KEMBA with Negus.
For those that aren’t hip to KEMBA, just know he’s not a newbie by any means. Rapping since he was nine years old, the emcee formally went by the name YC the Cynic. That is until recently. “I got my name [YC the Cynic] at a time when the coolest thing was to get your name from the people in your hood. So being named YC when I was a kid was cool then but as I turned 21, 22, 23, it became less and less who I am,” KEMBA tells us. “Nowadays, you don’t have to be named by someone to be authentic. It’s no like that any more.”
The name change came after KEMBA released his last project back in 2013, GNK [God, Nigga, King]. This breakthrough effort by the emcee had him as the topic of conversation when it comes to top tier New York lyricists. Three years later, KEMBA has returned to expand on his critically acclaimed LP with something of the times. In comes Negus. Named after the Ethiopian word for ruler, the arrival of Negus couldn’t have be any more perfect. The current social and political climate in America has seen so many losses and will continue to see many more for the next four years due to this past election. Negus sort of foreshadows that.
Built around a guy name Caesar, KEMBA takes us through his highs and lows. The album gives listeners an inside look at the black man’s plight in modern-day America. According to the artist, “NEGUS is a loosely conceptual project. It’s the journey of a boy’s life and all the pitfalls laid out by society. It’s very timely and very socially aware. It deals with police brutality and blacks growing up poor.”
Calm piano keys and beautiful harmonies being crooned first opens the album just before a short spoken word piece and a distorted voice kicks off and “Caesar’s Rise” begins to load up. This second track on KEMBA sets the wave for the soundtrack of black struggle, systematic oppression and race/class/marxism that KEMBA is getting ready to hit you with. Hold on tight.
On “Kings & Queens,” KEMBA demonstrates his ability to flow with ease. Weaving in and out of the sampled loops his in-house producer Frank Drake has woven, KEMBA drives home the point that he can make solid conceptual music that doesn’t lack in any areas. “Every project I get a little better at one tangible thing- rapping, melody, chorus, delivery. I feel like, now, I got it,” KEMBA tells us. We get more of that on “The New Black Theory,” a song that borrows a line from 2Pac’s “Dear Mama,” for a hook”
Going further into the album you start to really feel the cohesiveness of the menacing and introspective project. In large part, this is due to Frank Drake manning the helm. “I’m really hard to reach but Frank emailed me one day. I listened to a few of his beats they were really dope so I listen to some of his other stuff on SoundCloud. A lot of the beats I chose added on the GNK album,” details KEMBA.
“I would send him recordings. He liked what I recorded and sent back a touched up versions. That was a really cool dynamic that I didn’t have before. It’s nothing like having somebody that can oversea your whole project. It makes for a more cohesive project.” KEMBA goes on to say, “We feed off each other well. He influences me and I influence him to create something really unique. It’s a real camaraderie.” Evidence of this is prevalent on “Already,” Negus‘ most palatable song.
Chants echoing in the background give-way to Drake’s gorgeously dark, eerie and all the while funky production on “Already,” a fan favorite right next to “Greed,” another record highlighting the distorted morals and inverted values many Blacks seems to cling to. KEMBA pokes fun at that with satire and wordplay for days nicely bringing on a Kanye West/Travis Scott ascetic to the record with shredded Mike Dean-like chords and redlining vocals.
“I made this album during a time when deaths at the hands of police were crazy. There were a lot. The music, flat out, was for black people. People of all demographics are able to enjoy it but this is for black people,” notes KEMBA. “Whoever didn’t like the album, didn’t like the things or ideas that I talked about. I think it just hit a never for them. Some white people that heard it didn’t like it but it’s cool because it wasn’t for them.”
This real, raw and uncut mentality of KEMBA proves favorable. Especially on cuts like “Heartbeat” where the emcee steps outside the box. “I love “Heartbeat.” It’s super experimental,” says KEMBA. “It’s probably the most experimental song I’ve ever done. That skit, I created it myself. I love skits so it was a dope experience for me. And I’m actually saying something heartfelt and raw and emotional at the end.”
On “Hallelujah” Frank’s production shines bright once more. Heavenly vocals run in place as KEMBA settles in and preaches how we must get and remain educated in order to push on a revolution. Educating the black youth one last time on “We Made It,” KEMBA uses this heartwarming skit to entrance the outro and his favorite record, “Brown Skin Jesus.”
“The outro for me is some of my best songwriting. The hook is really awesome. It’s a powerful record. “People tell me that they have an emotional connection with this record,“ reveals KEMBA. The super soulful tune feels like a vintage blues record with its sick guitar solo KEMBA speaking on black excellence and brilliance. The melodic vocals help the album come full circle easing off into its ending.
The concept of NEGUS isn’t ground breaking and the message though is far from earth shattering but the way in which it was all delivered is something to be marveled at. KEMBA spoke his truth. Most importantly, KEMBA spoke the truth for many of the black youth that feel like they have no voice.
If you’re in the New York City area, catch KEMBA live at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. He’s also enlisted the help of New York hip-hop fixtures, Homeboy Sandman and Hot 97 morning show host Peter Rosenberg to celebrate the release of the project, and his 26th birthday.