Tragedy Khadafi’s career is thirty-five years deep, yet if you asked me what my favorite Tragedy album is, I’d have to get back to you. A couple of albums as Intelligent Hoodlum, countless mixtapes, and a number of collaborative albums make up the bulk of the Queens emcee’s catalog, but the one album that I automatically think of is Capone-N-Noreaga’s “The War Report”. That album is a classic, and Tragedy Khadafi is on it more than Capone is. I wouldn’t say he is underrated, because those that know of Tragedy Khadafi understand he is amongst the elite, but he’s certainly overlooked when discussions pop up on social media. Naming his latest project “Tabula Rasa” is reminiscent of his Black Market Militia comrade Killah Priest’s approach to naming albums, referencing the Latin term for a clean slate, but it’s also the name of a theory:
Tabula rasa is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content, and therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception.Some guy on Wikipedia
The clean slate metaphor is more apt, as this certainly feels like Khadafi has readied an album for everyone, not just dedicated followers. The guest list isn’t obscure or particularly underground – you’ve got KRS-One, M.O.P. and Kool G Rap on here. Don’t worry about the 50+ hours of material from the past; “Tabula Rasa” is a great starting point if you’ve not heard Tragedy’s work before.
Back in 2015, I thought Tragedy was yet to drop his best work, and to do that, he’d need to deliver a solo project. Since then we have seen solid yet uninspiring records with BP, Vinnie Paz, and Jukstapose. With Dead Monarchs, he’s found beats that manage to capture that magic from the late 90s, as well as offer more than throwaway boom-bap. There’s no pandering to the so-called real hip-hop crowd or wistful cries for rap to return to the 90s – it’s simply Tragedy Khadafi killing some dope beats. He even states on “QB’s Finest” that “you stuck in the 90s, I’m on that next flow”.
The use of piano feels like Dead Monarchs took a look at what tracks Tragedy excelled on, and applied it to this project. “Modern Day Gangster” is dominated by KRS-One so it feels more like his song featuring Tragedy and D.I.T.C.’s A.G. as they take aim at government corruption. Better is the umpteenth ode to New York; “New York Empire”; a predictably entertaining M.O.P. and Blaq Poet collab that’s not as intense as that lineup suggests. Ras Kass gives a trademark articulate verse packed with pop culture references to “Militant Mindframe” that’s workmanlike, but the hook falls short of what both verses deserve.
The track with Kool G Rap and Eto is wild and further proves why Eto is a special talent. If you’re third on a track with these two monsters you’d better deliver, and he certainly does even throwing in a nice Ghostface nod. The Tragedy verse though is the type of shit you’d see as a Hip Hop Quotable in The Source:
“I spit like a wizard inside a mausoleum
Gladiators in a colosseum, they try to free ’em
Facts, go to war like America out in Iraq
Mics I abuse them and lose them bringing the truth back
One time for your mind, my design is Columbine
Out my mind, I’m sublime, I’m Optimus Prime, hear my lines
You get chills in your spine whenever I rhyme,
Semi-auto weapon repper, anatomy dissecter
Bone collector, when I’m in your session
The hood raised me, giving my thoughts foul perception
I spit for those laid in the earth forever resting
Foul plus degree, 2-5 the realest lesson”
This sounds like most of the album is full of guests, but Tragedy does hold down 50% of the record on his lonesome. “Can’t Trust ‘Em” is the tale of a setup and not trusting women, “Get At ‘Em” is proud boasts sprinkled with self-awareness of just influential Tragedy has been, while “Cinematic Sequel” threatens to be the best song on the whole project with some throwback mafioso rhymes written in the Dunn language (not to mention the classy Large Professor sample on the hook).
There’s nothing spectacular about “Howling at the Moon” but it just feels right. Dead Monarchs keep things minimal with the piano jabs and just let Tragedy do his thing.
“Salute a Gee” is similar to M.O.P.’s 2009 song of the same name, but this is less of direct instruction to show respect and more of a reflective, almost somber way to end the album. The addition of Sean Price, with a verse where he doesn’t quite sound himself that must have been recorded shortly before he passed away, is a lovely way to close the record. Many of these artists have been around since the 1980s, and it’s just great to be reminded that no matter how long ago it was, these guys can still put together great music.
Nas was praised for sounding great at 47 but Tragedy sounds even more impressive at 50. Unlike others of his age, I reckon he sounds better than he ever has. The diction is precise, the flow is sharp and his vocabulary is still expertly chosen. Tragedy knows this, quipping “my attribute be, spitting precise and accurately”. Remember when 90s Nas would always use words like ‘cellular’ and ‘vernacular’ and he sounded otherworldly? This is the music Nas fans actually want, and it’s been here this whole time. And it’s not sounded this great in decades.