Martial arts references in hip-hop music are abundant. Part of the brilliance of Jim Jarmusch's recent film Ghost Dog was the awareness it had of the connection between the two. The extreme determination and oneness of mind that the samurai espouses in that film ("even if a samurai's head were to be suddenly cut off, he still should be able to perform one more action with certainty"), is something Afu-Ra aspires to in his rhymes.
Afu-Ra, who not coincidentally appears on the Ghost Dog soundtrack, sees himself as a combination martial arts warrior, philosopher, spiritual leader and MC. His debut Body of the Life Force is filled not only with dynamite hip-hop beats and production, but with nimble articulations of Eastern philosophy, Egyptian mythology and old-school-style battle rhymes.
He is both a straightforward, take-no-prisoners MC who thrives on rhyming above all else and a complicated, mysterious figure who refers to himself as "the perverted monk". In a way, he represents a duality in the NYC hip-hop of today; you've got the MCs' MCs (Gangstarr, M.O.P., D.I.T.C.) and the Wu-Tang crowd. Afu is not only an able contemporary of both parties, he also counts both among his friends. Body of a Life Force includes guest appearances by M.O.P. and two Wu-Tang members GZA and Masta Killa. There's Wu-ish piano-laden music on some tracks, and DJ Premier's classic beats on others.
Of course the genuine versus mysterious dichotomy is a false one, as most tend to be, and Afu-Ra proves that throughout his consistently engaging debut, as he simultaneously projects both rawness and mysticism. The best tracks include a dizzying mix of lyrical styles and references (Afu has quite a command on the language), plus music that contains the sense of mystery of RZA's best work and the no-nonsense style of Premier.
For a debut, this is quite solid. There's a few of the expected flaws, especially some obvious, ultra-repetitive choruses, but for the most part Afu-Ra demonstrates his skills and spins intriguing word webs. Even when the guest stars threaten to upstage him (especially M.O.P., who have the ability to upstage just about anyone), he holds his own quite well. Afu's obsession with all things mystical leads to no cohesive statement about spirituality or the world or whatever...but this is purely a hip-hop album, and the main focus is on showing off skills and making heads nod. At that, he succeeds with flying colors, all the while keeping things interesting with his lyrics, too.