Ras Kass “The Evil That Men Do”
The “demo” version of Soul On Ice LP is celebrated among die-hard fans for its dark lo-fi sound, devil-may-care sampling strategy, and the presence of fellow Western Hemisfear crew members. It makes for quite the sonic artifact but the proper studio album is a far greater representation of Ras Kass’s talent. Soul On Ice has been famously maligned as an album whose production is underwhelming in comparison to its lyrics, but over the years I have grown to enjoy the beats provided by producers Bird, Voodou, and Flip. Ras Kass’s lyrics contain elaborate wordplay and turns of phrase, and his cadences are unorthodox, so he is served well by beats that are dark and moody and do not distract from his vocals.
Such backing tracks clearly inspired Ras Kass to pen searing condemnations of America’s legacy of racism and brutality, as well as its current preoccupation with unfettered imperial expansion, in the form of “Nature Of The Threat” and “Ordo Abchao,” respectively. “Nature Of The Threat” is something of an essay in song form; Vooodo’s barebones beat is practically negligible, as Ras Kass’s flow meanders all over the place to accommodate his paraphrasing of key passages of texts by Frances Cress Welsing and Elijah Muhammad. It is an arresting song despite its simple music and unpolished vocal performance; Ras Kass doesn’t really flow but he does preach and orate masterfully for nearly eight minutes.
“Ordo Abchao” sees Ras Kass once again rhyme over Vooodo’s production, but this time both the music and the vocals are more refined. It is more of an anguished confession than a fiery sermon. He contemplates the life of conspicuous consumption that he pursues to avoid facing certain nagging unsettling truths concerning the hubris and inhumanity of wealthy power elites. Although Ras Kass’s delivery is intensely passionate, just as it is on “Nature Of The Threat,” the philosophical dilemma described in “Ordo Abchao” does not constitute his most compelling performance on Soul On Ice. That distinction goes instead to “The Evil That Men Do,” his grim depiction of coming up and making terribly misguided decisions in a society hostile to his very existence and deaf to his protests.
Ras Kass candidly describes a troubled upbringing characterized by addiction, depression, and abuse spanning several generations. He does not sensationalize the dysfunction that he witnesses at a young age but he doesn’t couch it in rosy terms either. He states simply and plainly that after his father left his mother, his only male role models were his grandfather and his uncle, who would “hit the bottle/ and then hit each other.” His grandfather1 is said to have beaten Ras Kass’s grandmother at some point in the past; even as a child Ras Kass deduced that his grandmother was permanently and gravely traumatized as a result.
Elsewhere on Soul On Ice Ras Kass excoriates organized religion, in particular Christianity, for a litany of sins, not the least of which is its historical support of the genocidal institution of chattel slavery. On “The Evil That Men Do” he goes a step further and demonstrates the extent to which corrupt Christian clergy members have abandoned their former zeal for assisting vulnerable people in desperate situations. He relates, quite chillingly that
As a child I introverted, and drew pictures
While my mother prayed to Jesus reading King James scriptures
She used to take me to church so I could put money in the basket
Tell the preacher how she used to get her ass kicked
He follows this alarming instance of sadistic indifference with a series of vignettes that involve him “mastering the art of hatred” in response to such traumas, including getting caught up in a gang of petty thieves and covering himself with baby powder out of a desire to erase his contemptible blackness. He makes it clear that Christianity has not become kinder or gentler since the abolition of slavery. He identifies his self-loathing as a learned behavior passed on to him by women who were battered by their husbands with the consent of an unapologetically patriarchal clergy, have nowhere to turn to for guidance or relief but the image of a white savior, and actively internalize prevalent notions of European/White superiority.
“The Evil That Men Do,” though poignant and heartbreaking, steers clear of hand-wringing despondency. Ras Kass plainly describes the saddest episodes of his childhood and adolescence but adds mature analysis to his narrative. The systemic roots of his family’s problems are not glossed over or discounted. He acknowledges that his own misogyny is yet another manifestation of the heartlessness and cruelty that black men adopt on a misguided path towards assimilation. Without attempting to explain away his actions as juvenile foolishness or wallowing in remorse, he expresses empathy for the women he has mistreated.2 He stops short of insulting his listener’s intelligence and implicitly acknowledges that there may be no silver lining in sight for him, no matter how many lessons he has learned. He is addicted to vice and nihilism just like “every nigga” on his block who “can’t stop,” and “won’t stop,” and “don’t stop.”3
This doesn’t mean that “The Evil That Men Do” is devoid of any hopeful sentiment, only that it is grounded in reality. Ras Kass has made a lifetime of mistakes, but at the time he recorded this song he was in full possession of a keenly analytical mind and an evolving sense of empathy and responsibility. He puts his impressive skill set to great use here; he doesn’t cloak his message in overly elaborate metaphors or fret over syllables. He knows that the act of rapping cannot correct his worst errors in judgement or most regrettable lapses into apathy or aggression, let alone dismantle the power structure that has made his life fertile for discord and pain, any more than a positive outlook can rid the world of pervasive economic inequalities.
But he is confident that he can contribute a song to the public that can awaken sleeping minds to the awful facts of modernity and encourage his most downtrodden listeners to investigate the larger causes of their seemingly isolated tribulations. — Thun
- It’s not made clear if its the same grandfather one who boxed with his uncle. [↩]
- In retrospect, it is disappointing that this empathy never seems to reveal itself elsewhere in his discography. Soul On Ice itself sees him revert to misogyny on numerous occasions; the idea that the album is supposed to mirror the conflict and paradoxes of Eldridge Cleaver’s life doesn’t detract from my disappointment. [↩]
- This hook is borrowed from Threat’s immensely prescient verse on Ice Cube’s “Color Blind” from his second full-length album Death Certificate. [↩]