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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BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul

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BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul

For a long, long time now I’ve considered Dennis Coles to be the elder statesman and Godfather of Hip Hop.  He was the first verse heard from the Wu, 22 years ago now, and he kicked open the door to a much more cinematic hip hop world than had been imagined before.  Since then he’s been mostly on point, popping out classics like Supreme Clientele and Fishscale on the regular, and delving into some really solid concept work on Twelve Reasons To Die and 36 Seasons over the last couple of years.  He’s first and foremost a storyteller, maybe the best in hip hop.  Naming a Greatest Of All Time is a fool’s game, given the subjectivity of the medium, but if a gun was held to my head and I was forced to pick, GFK would be it.

BADBADNOTGOOD, meanwhile, has come roaring out of the Toronto music scene to make a global name for themselves.  After staking their claim on jazzed-out covers of classic hip hop tracks, they toured behind Frank Ocean and released one of last year’s finest records, III.  As an instrumental trio there are few that approach the consistent quality they put out, and as it turns out there’s only one band that makes better for better live hip hop, and they’re currently the Tonight Show band.

So, the two together.  Collaborations are always a tricky business, because the egos involved make for complicated arrangements.  While Sour Soul isn’t quite perfect, it more than makes the case for why collaborations can work out very well.  The sound is a lot sparser than long-time BBNG fans might expect, and while it’s caused some consternation in certain circles I truly think it’s the right choice.  They tone down the out-there jazz reaches in favour of a live action version of the kind of gritty, streetlight music that GFK has always sounded best over.  They play a sort of hip hop prog-soul, like they’re interested primarily in recreating the moody, smoky soul-snippets that make GFK’s classics so iconic. GFK for his part sounds perfectly at home over it, spinning out his usual dense, on-the-edge-of-ridiculous wordplay; his style may have gone mostly out of favour in an age of trap and drill, but it’s like slipping on a favourite pair of shoes and going for a walk down blocks you know all too well.

Ghost never quite lets himself fully go, however, keeping back the kind of cinematic street stories that mark the tracks on his other albums.  “Gunshowers” and “Mind Playing Tricks” are the closest he gets, and tellingly they’re the two best tracks.  The usual off-the-wall “WTF are you even going on about” moments happen as well, although here they’re mostly confined to “Tone’s Rap”, a brief sketch of a hard-done-by pimp getting belligerent.  Of the four guest verses, it’s surprisingly Danny Brown’s that makes the most impact.  His hectoring, Cypress Hill-esque voice is an acquired taste, but his verse on “Six Degrees” makes the case for his greatness.  The Tree verse is lyrically dense but flows by without really sticking, and Elzhi verse on “Gunshowers” is oddly indistinguishable from GFK.  DOOM’s verse is inspired and would easily be the best on offer if I didn’t keep missing it in the midst of blinking.

Still, this is a winner by a clear and comfortable margin.  BBNG might not be the right backing track for every rapper – Keef and Flocka would sound bizarre – but their moody, gritty twilight jazz-soul fits Ghostface perfectly.

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