Bilal – In Another Life

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Bilal – In Another Life

New York’s Bilal Oliver has been a relatively unknown quantity for the greater part of his career, a time span that stretches back to his debut album in 2001.  He had been a hot item back in the early oughts, when his sophomore album, Love For Sale, was slated to be on Interscope and was to feature production work from such luminaries as J. Dilla and Dr. Dre.  When Bilal opted to scrap those plans and produce an album built around his own instrumentation, Interscope balked and the album went unreleased.  Such a reversal has set back any number of artists in a similar situation, so when 2010 rolled around and Bilal released another album, it was nice just to hear new music from him.  Since then, however, he’s put in time working – albums, singles, and appearances on the tracks of much bigger names.  He climbed back up the industry ladder rung by rung until he hit a breakthrough this year; Kendrick Lamar’s cultural touchstone To Pimp A Butterfly features quite a bit of work from Bilal, and it’s thrust his name back into the limelight.

All that “comeback from a career-ending event” stuff is heartwarming, to be sure, but it doesn’t mean a damn if it’s not capitalized upon.  In Another Life capitalizes.  Bilal’s tastes run through a swampy concoction of soul, funk, jazz, and R&B, and the work displayed on the album showcases that perfectly.  The singer found exactly the right producer in Adrian Younge, whose gritty soul-sampling work brought Ghostface Killah out of the mid-career doldrums on the two Twelve Reasons To Die albums.  The same core beats can be found on In Another Life, but Younge retools it to be lighter, more soulful than street-level.  While the synth-and-snare crackle of “Sirens II” could easily have hosted GFK’s cluttered, menacing flow, it’s a more than ample bed for Bilal’s smooth, streetlight voice.  It’s this particular formula that provides the best moments of the album:  “Sirens II”, “Star Now”, “Satellites”, “Lunatic”, and the Kendrick Lamar “hit ya back” epic “Money Over Love”.

Call it a comeback.  This is the apex (so far) of everything Bilal’s been working towards, and if there’s any justice it’ll get him more work in higher profile settings.  If you’re a fan at all of any of the kitchen sink of genres that Bilal is bringing to the table, you owe it to yourself to check In Another Life out.

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Ghostface Killah – Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die II

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Ghostface Killah – Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die II

Don’t call it a comeback – but GFK is in something of a career renaissance over the past two years.  After scoring a critically acclaimed juggernaut with 2006’s Fishscale he kind of fell off, releasing some diminishing returns (The Big Doe Rehab), a cringey rock-bottom R&B album (Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry), and finally the warning sign for every artist, the “attempt to recapture the old sound” of Apollo Kids.  Then, nothing for three years.  2013 came around and all of a sudden there was Twelve Reasons To Die, a grimy concept album about a murdered mobster named Tony Starks whose essence was distilled onto twelve vinyl records so that he might be summoned back as the Ghostface Killah.  It’s familiar territory for GFK, but the production hearkened back to classic Wu tracks and Ghost’s flow was on point, so it succeeded without question.  Since then he’s released another solid concept record (last year’s 36 Seasons) and a collaboration with Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD that ranks among my favourite albums of the year.

To round out a successful couple of years (unless DOOMStarks comes out, ha ha sob) we now get Twelve Reasons To Die II, a sequel to the original that sets out to improve on the original.  In the midst of a bloody raid on a rival gang’s social club, some mobsters discover the twelve records that contain the essence of the Ghostface Killah in a safe.  What follows is murder, mayhem, and the introduction of Tony Starks’ secret son, hidden from him by the mistress that betrayed him originally.  As far as sequels go it’s about on par with an equivalent film:  everything is designed to be bigger and moodier, and more action-oriented.  If the original was Bad Boys, this is Bad Boys 2:  bigger, bolder, and more bad-ass.  It’s also, unfortunately, more of the same; the presence of RZA on some tracks (as producer, rather than executive producer like he was the first time around) just shows to highlight how indebted Adrian Younge is to the Wu Abbot’s production bible.  It’s all menacing samples and chopped-up breaks, perfect for GFK and perpetual collaborator Raekwon to spit mafioso tales over, but hardly groundbreaking.  The reboot of the story seems like more of the same as well; again, while this is perfectly fine from the standpoint of the album itself, it does feel like GFK might be stuck in a rut here again.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, because it’s Ghost being Ghost and he’s in as fine a form as he’s ever been here.  Conceptual retreads and twenty-two years of Shaolin production aside, he delivers exactly what his fans want: grime, wit, and that hilarious eye for details that only Ghostface seems able to provide.  Like Bad Boys 2, you can’t imagine that a third entry would be at all useful (although apparently Bad Boys 3 is a thing that’s going to be inflicted on us) but at the same time, with all the action and explosions going on, you can’t really bring yourself to care.

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Ghostface Killah – “12 Reasons To Die”

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12reasons

There were a few years recently where Ghostface seemed to be going through an existential crisis of sorts.  Fishscale made him into a critical darling all over again, while The Big Doe Rehab found him treading water, hoping to trade that acclaim in for some crossover appeal (especially on the wings of Fishscale‘s great single, the Ne-Yo backed “Back Like That”).  When that failed to materialize, he groused publicly in interviews about people not buying his albums and his reticence at doing hip hop for much longer.  This period ended with his decent attempt at a sexed-up R&B album, 2009’s Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry.  His work since then (Apollo Kids, Wu-Massacre, and now 12 Reasons To Die) seem to harken back to his golden age, when gritty hip hop production was king, and Ghost was the undisputed master of detail-rich mafioso rap with a sense of humour.  That is to say, Ghost seems to have rediscovered his edge.  12 Reasons is by no means an innovative album (Adrian Younge is the producer here, but RZA is the “executive producer” and guess who it ultimately sounds like), but it is an album that remains sharply on point.  The concept is entertaining as well; based on a comic book, it features a 1960s Italian mafia man named Tony Starks who is murdered and comes back as Ghostface Killah, a revenant hell-bent on vengeance.  If that sounds familiar it should; it’s familiarity is one of its strong suits.  In a world that seems to demand constant change, it’s nice to know that Ghostface will always be there, with a blackly hilarious gangland tale to spin.
 
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