To say Ras Kass is a lyrical rapper we must redefine the term. ‘Lyrical rap’ marginalized itself over the years with a lack of creativity, a downward spiral of rippity rappity bars of diminishing returns. ‘Tales told by idiots, full of sound and (a little) fury signifying nothing.’ Anyone with a notebook, a rhyming dictionary, and a lot of free time can produce roughly the same results as the average ‘lyrical’ rapper. Punchlines have been watered down too, with battle rappers taking awkward routes for pop culture referencing insults. The effect is ephemeral – blink, they’re gone, and no one misses them. Besides: the kids want hooks not bars, the single of the moment not the album of the year. It’s no wonder that ‘lyrical’ is often taken as a pejorative these days.
Ras Kass is always saying something. It may be emotional, educational, or not – he’s also one of the kings of disrespectful punchlines. (Not just for laughs either: “Roll with players, gangsters prey on the weak/Christians pray on the weekend, my flows is deep”). Lines tumbling out of a restless mind – jokes, insults, confessions, beefs, sex, politics, Bronze Age history, etc. It’s like smart, witty conversation. But it’s crafted to be endlessly listenable, where new lines and puns emerge with each play. This is what lyrical rap is supposed to be.
Still Ras Kass’s career was once just a cautionary tale. Shady record deals, albums and projects shelved, beefs with lesser rappers, jail time served. Artistically, there was one classic and a mess of lost opportunities. 1996’s Soul On Ice is a unique masterpiece – lyrical and backpacker friendly, but built on smooth west coast beats; indulgent but intelligent; politics that depart from easy targets to go deeper into cultural and sociological injustice (“if Clinton was the answer it was a stupid question” – still apropos, eh?). The centerpiece of the album is “Nature Of The Threat,” a seven plus minute track that packs a few thousand years of history into its dense construction (“Let freedom ring with a buckshot but not just yet…”) Ras Kass was a different kind of MC – he had the political content of Chuck D and KRS-One but was still down for blunts and broads. His daringly offensive punchlines were a direct influence on Eminem. Soul On Ice still holds up as a classic album should – it’s a mature, accomplished work from a young rapper that promised a great career. West coast Nas? Soul On Ice was that good.
Unfortunately the catalog and career just spiraled after that. Rassassination was just plain disappointing aside from the early-Aftermath Dre assisted “Ghetto Fabulous.” After that, his battles with his labels resulted in years of promised albums and projects that never happened. The album Van Gogh was supposed to be the next classic, with a punchline packed single produced by prime Premier, and then a superlyrical supergroup including Killah Priest and Canibus. None of that ever materialized. Soul On Ice afforded him a career of good will, but that was nearly spent by the late 2000’s.
This changed with 2014’s Blasphemy. Produced in collaboration with Apollo Brown, it is a rare gem in this era of stray digital tracks – a fully formed album that works as a complete listen again and again. “How To Kill God” is a proper sequel to “Nature Of The Threat” – a fact-fueled rant on a history of poisonous religious dogma. Apollo Brown’s production is an extension of Wu-Disciples like Allah Mathematics; he actually studied under Bronze Nazereth, who is responsible for some of best Wu-related music of the past decade. Apollo has crafted several collab albums of chopped soul goodness over the past few years, but I feel like Blasphemy is his best work. Whether that’s pure chemistry or he was just saving his best beats for Razzy, I can’t say but I love the hell out of this album. Lyrically Ras Kass was inspired and focused again, with song themes tailored for the beats, exploring religion, politics, personal problems, getting older, and the trouble with threesomes. “Please Don’t Let Me” samples “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” for an extended riff on past mistakes; “H2o” employs a sweet chop of Freda Payne’s cover of “The Way We Were” for the same subject – “Glad they didn’t have camera phones when I was young doin’ bad shit/Yeah, I just dated myself/I’m no spring chicken but why you hate on yourself?” Again, Ras Kass speaks with authority but he doesn’t preach, and he’s not afraid of any joke even at his own expense. “Strawberry” is an update of Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” with a classic Wu style beat, “Francine” is a character study that starts out like Camp Lo’s “Sweet Claudine” before it turns into Nas’s “Blaze A 50,” “48 Laws” updates Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” for the rap industry. Blasphemy is an extra special album, one of those Day One classics that will be remembered as such for years.
Nonetheless, the announcement of a Kickstarter-backed sequel to Soul On Ice was met with some apprehension. Sequels to classic albums are pretty common as a promotional device, but artistic success is rare – Cuban Linx II, Chronic 2001, and Stillmatic are exceptions.
Intellectual Property: Soul On Ice 2, released on September 8, can be added to the list. It’s a banger. The opening track “And Then” reminds me of Royce 5’9″‘s “Tabernacle” from earlier this year – a veteran MC re-establishing his proper place in the game by reminding us who he is and where he comes from. “BARdom” is another chopped soul beat that’s becoming the perfect modern Ras Kass sound, with KRS-One adding a verse with his effortless bravado. “Bishop” is uniquely Ras in the way it references both Black Lives Matter and Two Girls One Cup in the same song – the beat is another complex sample chop. “Constant Elevation (feat RZA)” doesn’t have much RZA collaboration beside him saying “What’s up, what’s up?” as a chorus and the 36 Chambers style beat but it still works. “Trade Places” addresses terrorism and abortion; “Hood On Ice” satirizes the wide gulf between rap culture and reality. “Paypal The Feature” with a guest verse from the late Sean Price works as a meta-commentary on the mercenary business of rapping in 2016: “I don’t do songs with Ras Kass/I do songs with wack ass rappers for fast cash.” It’s a perfect tribute to Sean P’s no-bullshit style and sense of humor.
Ras Kass has released a video for “Kanye Moment.” That sounds like the kind of title you’d expect from Weird Al. No, it’s not really that bad – the beat and flows are there but it’s one of the few tracks on the project that doesn’t quite work for me. It’s a funny idea for a song, but the verses don’t focus it as they should so it feels half-baked. I prefer “Downward Sprial” as a representation of the album, with its guest verse from the great Freddie Foxx.
Overall, I can’t really offer that much more evaluation of Intellectual Property. But this is an album I’ll live with for a long time. Two years later and I still hear new stuff in Blasphemy; same for Soul On Ice twenty years on. The album is part of a new wave of mature work from the veterans, like Nas’s Life Is Good or Wu-Tang’s A Better Tomorrow. Even after a few listens I can say I like Soul On Ice 2 better than both, and I liked those albums quite a bit. (Review of A Better Tomorrow can be found here.) I do know that Ras Kass at his best makes thoughtful, funny, timeless music. Soul On Ice 2 is Ras Kass at his best.