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Review: Mysterioso DIY Rapper Ka Becomes Dr. Yen Lo on ‘Days With Dr. Yen Lo’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 18, 2015
Label: Pavlov Institute

Brownsville MC Ka is a man among Shmoney-dancing boys, but by historical accident, he’s never gotten to enjoy dignitary status. Instead, the rapper (and senior fireman) has often been treated like a fringe quack too far left for his city to get behind. Shame on the attending power brokers; at a minimum, this guy deserves Hot 97 rotation. Days With Dr. Yen Lo, Ka’s third album in as many years (on which he shares the alias Dr. Yen Lo with producer the Preservation), and it’s both reticent and primitively beautiful.

Ka set a new standard for neorealist crime drama with 2013’s compulsively listenable The Night’s Gambit. As on Gambit, the events recounted on Days with Dr. Yen Lo predate Ka’s membership to an intractable firefighters’ union. This is an album about fear, death and strategic miscarriage in buckshot-logged East Brooklyn, where the carrot of job security is no incentive to hold out hope.

Our host for these 40 minutes is cold under the collar; he clearly didn’t inherit the hammer-and-tongs energy of Brooklyn rappers past, like M.O.P. or Black Moon. While the 41-year-old wordsmith brightens a trifle with the appearance of coke rap original Roc Marciano (a daffy, language-mad Long Island dude) on “Day 81,” he mostly sounds immolated, rapping about pistol play and a childhood calcium deficiency in the same multitracked monotone.

“I give you life decoded / Nicely quoted,” Ka fibs on “Day 110.” Tortured symbolism is much more his speed than straight talk. It can be a challenge making heads or tails of Ka’s cryptic word clouds (“My wine cellar bigger than your bar”), but into that mess washes a cavalcade of truly moving images. “Days 3” is about a foredoomed soul contaminated by design, not default or choice: “I deplore what I draw is not animated / I stand on that land where man is hated.” Most haunting is Ka’s famine-bitten prayer to the gods of wish fulfillment. “Nibble a bit / Hope we can chew tomorrow,” he raps.

Dr. Yen Lo is, moreover, an audiophile’s nightmare. Patrons of Yen Lo’s medical practice need get accustomed to some ineffably strange, thriftily mastered waiting-room music. A passing Rastaman Vibration reference (“Crazy baldheads comb the street”) is the closest this record comes to mellowing out. The Preservation, a journeyman acolyte to stars like Mos Def, produced Dr. Yen Lo; he’s got a thing for crashing cymbals, drone-music horns and carceral psychedelia. It all amounts to a terrifyingly friable noise-scape of the type one might encounter in hell’s planetarium.