When YC the Cynic announced he was retiring the pseudonym he’d adorned for the entirety of his short-lived career, the air on Twitter felt thicker than usual. After three nearly silent years of what should have been a summit rise from the underground manifesto Gnk, the newly named Kemba released The Farewell Tape, a collection of unused tracks from the YC days. The tape was solidly made, but it represented an unsettling career move in the death of what’s been shown to work, and reaffirmed the starving artist mentality that exists within him. With it, he subtly tweeted to not pay this release too much mind, as the debut of Kemba was quick to come. In retrospect, fans had little to worry about. Kemba’s noticeably matured, his discussions on black bindings having become significantly defter, but it’s hard to ignore the fact he may have delivered yet another highly original and organically political album onto deaf ears. Hopefully now, especially with the increasingly zealous outcries from the black community, Negus will find its proper audience, and with it, a place for Kemba.
In looking at the cover, Negus feels representative of what we could hope to expect from the phoenix-style rebirth of YC the Cynic. Its title is in keeping with the royalty-driven themes of black ancestry. The only three colors to appear are black, white, and gold, a parallel for the symbiotic relationship and struggle between the races and their unending (however unintended it may be) power clash. It’s an imperfect take on aggression between race, aggression between classes, and aggression between the independent and the rest, all wrapped up in a sensibly unaggressive delivery. And despite his contemporaries outshining him in sales and praise, Kemba’s contents speak for themselves.
In the aftermath of To Pimp A Butterfly, Negus is bound to draw up comparisons. Any release that rides the tide ruptured by the waves of 2015 is going to be pigeonholed by the past, regardless if the influence is apt. But these allegations, should they arise, need to be dispelled; especially considering Gnk (an album the preceded Kendrick’s monster by two years) makes for a more appropriate accompaniment. No, Negus is not an album that needs countless comparisons to countless hip-hop activist projects that have come before it. Negus is a collision of somber realism and oppression, a look at injustice without exaggeration. Most importantly, it’s a look at the now. Three years in the making, its release couldn’t have been any timelier. “I could walk outside now and get shot down” is cut short by a gunshot on “Kings & Queens”, a brilliant false start to “The New Black Theory”. But in the wake of a frenzied media panic over police brutality, Kemba’s forced silence resonates more than ever.
But even if Negus had been released at a time when black lives weren’t at the forefront of social justice, its technical precision and musical blooming more than warrants its attention. In 2013, fans of Gnk had to adore in spite of key elements: lyrics that were either underdeveloped or thematically repetitive, audio samples intending to cut tension but only ending up eliciting grimace, and production styling that bounced around as confusingly as a mixtape. Now, with Negus, everything has been stylistically homogenized, with the audio samples maintaining a dark stoicism and the production matching it. Surprisingly, Frank Drake has mostly dropped the aura of underground New York jazz in favor of an eclectic, somewhat industrial backing that fractures into a whirlwind climax. It’s emotionally invigorating, rather than something to appreciate from afar.
And yet if YC represented a snapshot of the betrayed and letdown youth, Kemba is the hardened adult who’s come to accept the world around him, disgusted and indignant though he may be. Each track is purposed; giving insight into the varied emotionality that comes with living as a black man and as a struggling artist. Kemba is an eloquently spoken expert on both. On “Greed”, he highlights his tightest lyrical prowess, fueled by aggression and a tilted, underlying synth beat. “Already” strips away some of the barriers, if only for a moment, and opts for a bouncier, more introspective take on the past few years, an outraged crowd bemoaning in the background. And as Negus dies down in intensity, it inflates in heartbreak, closing with a hint of religious cynicism and the standout sample of a speaker addressing a group of black children on “We Made It”. Kemba’s verses are absent here, but his intimate portrayal of rejecting societal norms has never felt more present.
– Zach W.