Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge - Twelve Reasons to Die

Since Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele dropped in 2000 and essentially closed the book on the Wu-Tang Clan’s near-unimpeachable nineties run, there have been only a handful of serious landmarks in the Wu-Tang catalog: Masta Killa’s No Said Date in 2004, Ghostface’s Fishscale in 2006, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II in 2009.[1] With the latter, Raekwon knocked Ghostface out of the top spot in the Wu-Tang pantheon, and since then Ghostface has been spinning his wheels a bit, releasing the ill-advised but amazingly titled R&B project Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, the good but undercooked Apollo Kids, the tossed off Ghost/Rae/Meth collaboration Wu-Massacre, and the painfully generic Wu-Block with the LOX’s Sheek Louch. On Twelve Reasons to Die, Ghostface is reenergized and focused, and he sounds hungry again for the first time since Fishscale. Ghost has given the Clan their fourth landmark album of their second decade.

This is due in no small part to Adrian Younge, who fancied himself a visionary a few years ago and is finally growing into that role. Younge toes the line between music and film so effortlessly that his seventies-indebted video projects drive his cinematic musical projects. By hooking up with Ghostface, Younge has managed to fully merge his two great interests as the two have essentially created an epic b-movie in album form. If Twelve Reasons to Die was actually a movie, first song “Beware of the Stare” would be the perfect opening credits song, establishing the album’s mood with an operatic chorus and spooky evocative instrumentation while Ghostface lays out the album’s themes of revenge. The scene then cuts to Italy, with Tony Starks becoming a force in the DeLuca criminal organization. Just before he was to be made a don, Starks breaks out and forms his own gang, the Black Shirts, since the DeLucas “tried to front on [his] skin tone.” Wishing to increase his riches and eliminate his competition, Starks declares war on the DeLucas. At the same time, a beautiful woman comes into his life and entrances him despite the protestations of his advisors that she’s a rat. She unsurprisingly betrays him and he gets killed by the leader of the DeLucas, who has Starks’ remains melted down into twelve vinyl records. His desire for revenge is so great that his spirit, the Ghostface Killah, returns every time one of those twelve records is played, and he rounds up his gang and massacres the entirety of the DeLuca gang and most of their friends and family members as well. The album ends with a brief RZA narration and the instrumental “12 Reasons to Die,” which essentially serves as the closing credits.

Focusing on one album-length story with Younge and executive producer RZA overseeing things allows Ghostface to hone in on one of his greatest skills as a rapper: evocative and detailed storytelling. He does not disappoint, whether he’s arguing with Cappadonna over his lover’s loyalties, describing her betrayal and his own death, or taking the listener through the insane amount of murders that follow his resurrection. The guests, all of whom come from the Wu family (with the exception of Delfonics lead singer William Hart), all step up their storytelling as well. U-God hasn’t sounded as good as he does on “Blood on the Cobblestones” since the nineties. Inspectah Deck reminds everyone that he could have been counted among the best rappers ever if he had had more direction and better beat selection on his solo records. Out of all of the people rapping about killing dozens of people throughout the record, Killa Sin manages to rise above the rest in terms of intimidation, laughing his way through a four year prison sentence and counting the days until he gets out so he can kill again. The violence is so intense and so constant that it reaches almost cartoonish levels. A lot of rappers have threatened to kill people on record, but no one has ever rapped “take my life and I’ll take everyone you love,” and then spent three songs listing all of the ways he killed every single one of those loved ones. Outside of the context of the album, “Murder Spree,” which is one of those killing method list songs, doesn’t fully land, but after listening to Tony Starks’ rise, death, and rebirth as the Ghostface Killah on the nine tracks that precede it, it’s immensely satisfying.

Musically, Younge out-RZA’s the RZA. By taking equal cues from RZA and Ennio Morricone and translating those sounds through his own band, he’s created a more cohesive and cinematic musical statement than the RZA has since the first round of Wu-Tang solo albums. On “Revenge is Sweet,” pianos stab as Ghostface does the same. The dread is palpable throughout “Enemies All Around Me,” and Younge goes full-on horror soundtrack when Ghostface returns from the dead on “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah” Elsewhere, bass pummels, drums crack, horns blast, strings and harpsichord slice. Death, doom, and the glory of criminal success all echo throughout the band’s playing. Younge understands the sound that Ghostface’s story requires and translates it on record so effectively that the two evoke a film that doesn’t exist. If ever there’s been a rap record that sounds like a movie, it’s this one.

There are a few criticisms that can be made of this record. Masta Killa’s verse and flow could have been better on “I Declare War.” The last third of the record after Ghostface’s rise could be a bit more plot specific instead of just a nonstop massacre, although this would be difficult since there are only two well-defined DeLuca character. The album only runs for thirty-nine minutes, and a longer runtime could have helped Younge and Ghostface flesh out the plot a bit. These are minor criticisms though, and as you get sucked into the world of Twelve Reasons to Die it’s easy to let these few flaws slide.

There have been a few album-length stories in hip-hop, most notably Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves, but none have ever been this filmic or this able to carry the plot without heavily relying on skits. Until now, Fishscale, which runs through nearly every facet of Ghostface’s personality and musical style, was Ghostface’s third best record with a bullet, after Ironman and Supreme Clientele of course. By focusing in on one thing, instead of trying to do everything, Ghost has achieved a cohesiveness that he hasn’t had on any album since his first. Fishscale has been knocked out of position, and he has forcibly taken the crown back from Raekwon. This is the record to beat for hip-hop when it comes to best-of lists this year.

On a side note, Younge is as talented a filmmaker as he is a composer and musician, and his video for “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah” captures the spirit of the song perfectly. If they can find the budget then the whole album is begging to get the full video treatment.

"The Rise of the Ghostface Killah"

"Blood on the Cobblestones"

[1] This is not to say that there haven’t been other great Wu-Tang records since Supreme Clientele. An incomplete list would include Bulletproof Wallets, The Legend of the Liquid Sword, Grandmasters, Wu-Tang Chamber Music, 8 Diagrams, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, Dopium, Pro Tools, and others, and that’s not even counting the Killa Bees. But the three records mentioned above are the serious benchmarks for the Wu in their second decade.

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