Violently named but far from criminal minded, Killah Priest is the self-described "portrait of a poor kid that came to fortune." A hip-hop career with more Yo-Yo's than the IBWC or a famous cello player has left many fans boggled over the years. Starting out with a stellar debut on "Heavy Mental," he seemed to be a rising star of the Wu-Tang Clan. They soon parted ways though, and since 1998 he has been walking an incresingly more and more independent path in getting his albums released nationally. Quixotically, they've also been getting better and better, from the somewhat mixed vibes of MCA's "View From Masada" to the solid presentation of "Priesthood" on Proverbs Music (for all intents and purposes self-released) to having another major distribution deal on "Black August" to basically being on his own again on the excellent "Black August Revisited."
While these trevails have been at least partially covered on RapReviews, it will certainly strike some curious that "Black August Revisited" has already been covered, while the album it was based on hadn't been reviewed until now. Blame it on poor distribution by his labels, Recon and Artemis Records. By getting his "Revisited" album released through large hip-hop retail sites, Killah Priest actually had better distribution independently than he did with a national record label. Life's just ironic like that. Having had a chance to pick up "Black August" recently, I decided this gap in RR's coverage deserved to be filled in. With apologies about not reviewing them in order released and without further adieu, RR presents to you "Black August."
The album stars off excellently with the Anton Kallisto produced "Black August (Daylight)." It samples from "The Making of You" by Gladys Knight, and certainly feels like a warm summer evening with a cool breeze floating over you - not just musically, but lyrically. Listeners find themselves in awe, as Killah Priest tells us how a good friend described his rap:
"Priest, your lyrics, are too vivid
They more like pictures, you can feel it
Yo, you gifted, it flows like liquid, mystic
I never witnessed such things as beautiful
As unusual, like a musical..
Even with this secondhand account, Priest still feels the need to remind us in the chorus that "this is no rap, these are moments captured on a Kodak, so hold that." True indeed. Recognized hip-hop favorites like Scarface and Kool G. Rap have always been praised for their narrative ability, creating cinematic scenes in your mind with excellent lyrics and a verbal delivery that paints it like a portrait. Priest should be thought of in that same category, as an MC that can make you see what he sees, whether from his vivid imagination or simply a representation of his bleak reality. "Excalibur" is both - at times a flight of fancy, and at other times a harsh reminder that all that glitters is not gold:
"It's Priest standin in his greatness, God's favorite
I rock the star like King David, my queens bath it
I walk past, they start wavin
Each arm, a thousand bracelets, face it, I'm the greatest
Made women drunk from the royal fragrance
I rock the latest in fashion, my jewelry flashin
In other countries, they can hear my magnums
when they blastin, I heard they sound like thunder clappin
Hit you in your stomach, watch you start gaggin
Who gives a fuck if you're platinum?
If you're lyin in a wooden casket
for good, now that's hood"
The only downside of "Excalibur" is a beat by Godie that attempts to create a renaissance fair sound, but actually comes across a little silly in it's "ba ba bum ba" harmonies and lacks a powerful beat to motivate the listener. None of these deficiencies are present on the lead single "When I'm Writing.". If you remember that Priest's friend described his lyrics as "beautiful and unusual" earlier, you might find those words apt for Jahson's beat. Oriental, Western and Hip-Hop all at the same time, it's a pleasingly wicked brew of high notes with a beat punctuated by deep bass. It gives the already vidid lyricist Priest a highly compelling platform to paint another verbal portrait in your mind:
"The weed is lit, it's given like an Indian gift
Passed around in a cipher 'til eventually you pull it tighter
Put out the fire, blow out clouds of stress
Now's the test - who's the first to talk crazy?
You cough maybe, the weed is still in your lungs
You beat ya chest 'til that feelin will come
You're high, you in a cipher behind your own eyes
Sayin stupid shit, but to others you wise
Me, on the other hand I zone
Find a little spot to myself 'til I feel I'm alone
Talk to angels with black wings, silver halos
Build with Gabriel the Messenger
I'm Hugh Hefner, with long robes, in a porn show
Women with pretty toes, the dizziest ho's
Then I turn romantic, write in Sanskrit
I put all my vision that I see inside my pen
Blackout is when I'm writin"
Little nuances enhance the portrait further, such as the sound of men coughing in the line "you cough maybe, the weed is still in your lungs." If you don't notice it yet still picture yourself sitting around in a circle passing a joint, it doesn't matter if you smoke or not, you can still see it and more importantly FEEL IT. Priest can convey not only powerful images, but his own powersul self-image. In one line he'll talk about writing in Sanskrit (an acient language of India) and in the next verse rap that his words are "the inscription written on an Egyptian clay jar." Priest "writes rhymes like [he's] doing time" and when writing in pen "I start doing the sentence" and has the "flow locked behind each bar." Masterully constructed similies and metaphors like these are found few and far between in hip-hop, putting Priest in a rare air only those like Pharoahe Monch, Gift of Gab and Rakim have ever breathed in.
Priest doesn't want to just blow you away with his own cleverness or oratorical narrative flow though. "Do the Damn Thing" is straight back to the basics, "for my chicks in the whips dancin braless, hair done nice face lookin flawless." Thanks to a pounding beat by Mr. Khaliyl, this is stomping anthem that comes as close to "thugged out" as Killah Priest gets. Even when fighting to the death Priest still vows to "shoot 'em with rhymes, execute 'em with lines" instead of knives or guns. Even here Priest hides gems for hip-hop fans, by dropping the line "I get physical, visual, very artistical/Givin party people somethin, funky to listen to." If you know that was a reference to Big Daddy Kane, give yourself some dap.
The gems just keep dropping throughout "Black August." The slow and somber "Time" builds on flutes and soft melodies by G 13, but still has a sly nod to Notorious B.I.G. in the rap if you're paying attention. The gems come in all different shapes or sizes, some reflecting the shine of others, but many more showing the versatile beauty of Killah Priest. "Robbery" featuring Savoy is a narrative with an intentionally stop-start lyrical flow by Priest which creates as much tension in the air as the actual heist being told. "Come With Me" is another powerful Jahson track that pulls you into a story darker than "the world after nuclear war ends," but the Kallisto produced narrative "Breathe" that follows will immediately refresh you:
"Mellow out the ghetto route, attract thugs, metal out
Crack blood devil house, gat slugs, here's your addict
Pushers of unseemly habits, hookers lookin steamin mad
The task force, blast off, gas talk in the hood
Black fog, burnin wood, crack wars turnin good
Nickel bags, crystal meth, blackout, seventy-four
Blackwatch, ready for war, Sasquatch, Fantastic Four
Blood, strength in our clan, wear the colors of our flag
Love our mothers, love our dads, sister strung out on that glass
You ain't mad when they didn't sell reefer
Jumped out the window, chasin Jesus
Junkie, in the garbage, told me, he's a prophet
Used to recite scriptures, and thus, have our skin poppin"
Not surprisingly the track called "Musifixtion" which follows is much more somber, with Prose' Ipso's beat sounding surprisingly like a Three 6 Mafia track. Jahson comes back to refresh the eardrums again on "Deja Vu (Twilight Zone)," although in some ways the beat and narrative may be more eerie than the previous track. He also produces the next three tracks - "Goodbye" featuring Solstice, "Black August (Dark)" and the first bonus track - a "Robbery Remix" featuring Elephant Man that was co-produced by Steely & Clevie with Sticky Dan. Something surprising that the album didn't receive more recognition with this popular dancehall artist making an appearance - again, blame it on Recon Records and Artemis Records. The last song "Do You Want It" is a throwaway, a Killah Priest track where he imitates a P. Diddy and Mase style, while re-interpreting T La Rock's "It's Yours" in the chorus as an ode to sex. Humerous, true, but obviously Priest intended it as a spoof of sorts since it's so out of step with his usual style. It's no surprise that "Black August" is a high quality Killah Priest album that got slept on by most people - if anything that seems to be the norm for his whole career. Still, it may be hard to succeed commercially when your voice has the somber resonance of a priest giving a sermon (no pun intended) since it may vibe with fans of dope lyricism but not with a mainstream audience. Whether he ever finds that acclaim outside his cult following or not, records like "Black August" will stand the test of time for years to come while less well thought or produced mediocre raps will just blow away in the cold December wind.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10
Originally posted: February 17, 2004