Happy 20th Anniversary to Killah Priest’s debut album Heavy Mental, originally released March 10, 1998.
By 1998 hip-hop had matured enough to offer a variety of completely different styles for its vast and rapidly growing consumer base. The supergroup known as the Wu-Tang Clan had risen to such prominence that the solo projects from the frontline members and affiliates gave the collective representation in almost every sub-genre.
One of the most significant LPs that helped secure such an unprecedented monopoly in the mid to late ‘90s was the GZA’s Liquid Swords (1995). A landmark album for supreme lyricism, the album arguably created its own sub-genre with the RZA’s eeriest and most sinister production accompanying GZA’ grim narrations of the Brooklyn wing of the NYC killer bee movement. Liquid Swords was lyricism 2.0 for the advanced audience and a sounding board for a new generation of street philosophy that interchanged gritty street cypher battle raps with Afrocentric principles and spirituality.
Among Liquid Swords’ ensemble list of hungry contributors, Killah Priest stood out amongst the fierce competition of Masta Killa, as well as some of the best bars ever delivered from the lyrically acclaimed Inspectah Deck. Some would argue that Priest stole the show from two of the most well respected swordsman of the Great 8 with his early feature on the song “4th Chamber,” with rhymes such as “I judge wisely / as if nothing ever surprised me / lounging between two pillars of ivory / I’m lively, my dome piece / is like building stones in Greece / our poems are deep / from ancient tombs I speak.” The husky baritone, which comfortably dropped in between Ghostface and RZA, caught the attention both of those who retained their knowledge of Old Testament scripture and those who lived for jabs to be thrown against wack emcees.
Whatever Priest and GZA’s personal relationship was during the making of the classic LP, Priest managed to secure a solo song at the end of the tracklist entitled “B.I.B.L.E.” (an acronym for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”), which is also an early collaboration with Wu Tang producer 4th Disciple. Killah Priest’s narration of his personal spiritual journey sets the tone for his entire career as an intellectual and deeply spiritual lyricist, while at the time creating an interesting segue between GZA’s gem and his very own debut.
Seeming to jump the line ahead of more frequent Wu contributors like Masta Killa and Cappadonna, Priest’s album hit stores in the first quarter of ’98, highly anticipated, acclaimed, and ironically criticized for its intellectualism and thought provocation. Obviously not the first hip-hop album to delve into spirituality, Heavy Mental does chart new territory with its strong influence from the doctrine of Hebrew Israelites movements.
The album sets its agenda immediately with the prophetic sample for the Intro, and Priest opens with fire and fury as his initial bars are delivered on “One Step,” seemingly from behind a pulpit: “Early natives, related to thrones of David / captured by some patriots and thrown on slave ships / they stripped us naked while their wives picked they favorite / lives were wasted in the hands of the hated.” Even for those who bought the album because of the Wu logo, and unexpectedly found themselves at the altar of the brawny Brooklynite, your attention was still captivated by Priest’s clear diction, precise delivery and masterful ability to make spirituality entertaining, with lines like, “Our life is connected to second son of Isaac / which had a tight grip on the heels of his brother, revealed to his mother / The elder should serve the younger / words heard in thunder.”
Food for thought was nothing new from members of the Wu-Tang, and hip-hop always had conscious emcees going back to the X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, and many others. But now fans had an album that could have shipped with biblical concordances. Killah Priest’s uncanny recall of the Torah and Old Testament scripture was powerful enough to have the average sixteen year-old running to church to challenge their Christian Reverend after a few listens, and help the ghetto youth see their surroundings from a clearer perspective.
One of the unique albums of its era, Heavy Mental hits the brain like a novel told from two different vantage points, and like any good author, Priest’s pen is equally effective from both sides of the spectrum. More rapidly heralded when being clear and direct, “Blessed are Those” secured the highly coveted Hip-Hop Quotable for The Source Magazine with its poignant depictions of the poverty stricken: “ Ain't no wealth shared, it's welfare / and poor health care, self-scared / It's senseless, the way they got our black princess/ on public assistance to end our existence.” Priest’s moments of being more allegorical were misunderstood by critics who missed bars like those showcased on “Mystic City”: “Theory of the 12 Monkeys, left in this cold war hungry / we kill over blood money, the cops seem to think it's funny / we murder over pennies and crumbs / plenty of guns, crammed in the city slums / the man pity none for this next millennium / kids starving when they breath you can see they kidneys and lungs.”
Earning the Wu logo on the cover, Heavy Mental served up plenty of collaborations throughout its duration. GZA and Deck drop in for “Cross My Heart” which settles as a welcome “Duel of the Iron Mic” redux, replacing Masta Killa, whose presence was missed on the song and LP. Hell Razah and 60 Second Assassin both appear on the 4th Disciple produced “Tai Chi,” which served as an appetizer for the subsequent Sunz of Man album. Priest reunited with fellow Brooklynite and Wu fan favorite Ol’ Dirty Bastard for “If You Don’t Know” where Priest’s bully raps (“I drool, before I break fool / then I drag MCs / beat ‘em down to they knees / grab your necks and squeeze / till there's no life left, they lifeless / then mic-less, what a crisis / I give them a good night's rest” are complemented by ODB’s vintage vocals for a great hook.
One of the albums that helped shape my own spirituality when I purchased it at the age of fifteen, I believe the only major complaint of a Killah Priest loyalist is the LP’s lack of RZA’s blessed production. The musical guru and Wu-Tang sound wizard most definitely still had the hot-hand early in ’98, and the inclusion of two or three tracks may have given the album a crossover single. Nevertheless, Heavy Mental has stayed in heavy rotation for me and my closest friends. Revered for its high caliber of lyrical content, Heavy Mental is right at home alongside great books and thought-provoking conversation.