Ghostface Killah is one of the nine original members of the Staten Island-born Wu-Tang Clan, and has slowly but surely become the most consistently entertaining member of the crew, which is no small feat when compared with the natural charisma of Method Man, the lyrical genius of, um, The Genius, the musical wizardry of The RZA, or the batshit-craziness of the batshit-crazy Ol' Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.) Adrian Younge is a music producer and composer who specializes in, as his Wikipedia page refers to it, "psychedelic soul", who has worked with the Philadelphia-born R&B group The Delfonics and handled the soundtrack to the (fucking awesome) film Black Dynamite.
Put them together, and you get yet another reason for Ghostface Killah to not yet release a proper follow-up to Apollo Kids, his Def Jam swan song.
Twelve Reasons To Die, the reason for today's post, is a concept album based around what is supposed to sound like an Italian giallo (crime-slash-horror flick). Hell, even the album's cover art gets this fact exactly right. Ghostface Killah plays Tony Starks, which isn't a stretch considering that he calls himself that anyway, as a not-so-modest street soldier who swears revenge on his own crime family. I won't get into the specifics of the story here (that's what the review is for, so let me just say, SPOILER ALERT!), but let's just say that supernatural beings may or may not be involved, and at least twelve people probably die, or at least one guy will die twelve times.
Twelve Reasons To Die is the second original release from The RZA's Soul Temple Records (the first was the well-received (by me) soundtrack to The RZA's directorial debut The Man With The Iron Fists), and it certainly seems to have been created with the Wu stans in mind. Guest stars from the Clan make cameo appearances, all either advancing the story or at least playing nicely alongside it, while Younge's instrumentals, conducted with mostly live instrumentation, evoke a mixture of vintage Prince Rakeem mixed with famed film composer Ennio Morricone (two influences Younge himself has already cited). Soul Temple has even gone so far as to package the project with a second disc full of instrumentals and a comic book series inspired by the album: hell, this coming Saturday, on Record Store Day, if you pick up Twelve Reasons To Die at a mom-and-pop record shoppe, you may even receive a cassette-only version of the album remixed in its entirety by Detroit-based producer Apollo Brown. Now how's that for nerdy? Awesome. I mean awesome.
Aside from The RZA, who serves as executive producer and sometimes narrator, Twelve Reasons To Die lacks the heavy hitters from the crew (seriously, Ghost couldn't convince Raekwon to contribute at least one verse?), and as a result, it rests on the shoulders of Ghostface Killah's ability to stick to a single concept, as opposed to his tendency to space out and start talking about food and sex and shit.
Can he pull it off? SPOILER ALERT: Yes.
1. BEWARE OF THE STARE
Between the expository female-driven chorus and Younge's score underneath, "Beware Of The Stare" kicks off the evening in a nice fashion. Pretty Toney delivers his two verses, filled with threats and braggadocio, like a seasoned vet who is starving to death, if that even makes sense, and he does a damn fine job of it, even over the unorthodox-for-hip hop beat that consistently switches itself up: I'm not even really sure how "GFK, the pain prolonger" saw fit to actually rhyme over the musical backing, it sounds that awkward. Also, really goddamn good. Personally, I would have just let the beat ride, but that's why I'm not a rapper. That, and I can't rap. This was an excellent way to start things off.
2. RISE OF THE BLACK SUITS
Younge throws a more traditional hip hop beat at the listener, while our host casts himself as the antihero in a John Woo blaxploitation flick that hasn't been filmed (yet). The organ work on here reminded me of Pharrell Williams's production on his own "Show You How To Hustle", which you two will immediately mark as a negative but is weirdly meant as an out-of-place compliment, and it is paired with some hard-as-fuck drums that will make you feel every fictional gunshot Ghost allegedly fires. What you're about to read is cliche, but so be it: "Rise Of The Black Suits" is almost like a movie playing in your mind. Shit, I would preorder my tickets now if I could.
3. I DECLARE WAR (FEAT. MASTA KILLA & THE RZA)
Younge brings back the organ and the hard drums, but this time around the keys are pitched louder and the drums are more precise and militant. As if he wasn't acting aggressively enough earlier, Pretty Toney officially mounts an attack on his adversaries, and, of all people, he recruits Masta Killa as one of his...henchmen? His lieutenant? Officer in charge of picking up tacos? Who knows, but Elgin sounds more focused than he did on the entirety of the fuckshit that was Selling My Soul. "I Declare War" belongs to Tony Starks, though, as he flies through the air in his bulletproof jet, plotting his next move. The narration from The RZA at the tail end of the track was a nice touch, too: I honestly didn't know that he was going to actively participate on Twelve Reasons To Die, and hearing various members of the Clan work together makes my heart feel fuzzy.
4. BLOOD ON THE COBBLESTONES (FEAT. U-GOD & INSPECTAH DECK)
The fact that Ghostface somehow convinced both U-God and Inspectah Deck to not just participate on Twelve Reasons To Die, but to also follow the goddamn concept of the album, is pretty fucking impressive on his part. Pretty Toney is in the midst of battle, with Younge's beat providing an adequate backdrop for spontaneous action (don't get me wrong, it's quite good), and his guests both feel the heat and step up accordingly. U-God turns in a surprisingly decent verse ("surprising" not because I think he's a bad rapper, because, contrary to popular belief, I don't really think that at all, but because, well, he's U-God, so take that as you inevitably will, all you U-God apologists), and Deck eviscerates the enemy, apparently all while dressed up in a wig and a cable guy uniform. With first Czarface and now his cameo here, Deck's having a pretty good 2013.
5. THE CENTER OF ATTRACTION (FEAT. CAPPADONNA)
Younge switches gears, as "The Center Of Attraction" is a quieter mediation about the love of Ghost's life...until it isn't. After a minute-and-a-half of setup, Pretty Toney speaks highly of his lady friend, while guest star Cappadonna isn't as convinced that she's not part of an elaborate ruse. The instrumental is fucking dope, and, inadvertently (at least I assume this isn't by design), the listener can accept this track as Ghostface Killah's heart arguing with his mind, since Cappa's flow as of late tends to sound exactly like our host, which elevates this song to an entirely different plane of existence. This shit was nice, son!
6. ENEMIES ALL AROUND ME (FEAT. WILLIAM HART)
In which Pretty Toney becomes so paranoid that he employs guest crooner William Hart to sing his thoughts while by his side. Younge's beat sets the mood immediately: although I appreciated The RZA's work, I believe Younge should have been handed the keys to the score for The Man With The Iron Fists. It isn't too late to give him the job, is it? What do you mean, the movie's already come out on Blu-Ray? Anyway, the hook is kind of cheesy, but Ghostface and company are trying to make sure the audience has kept up with the story thus far, so I'll let it slide. Interesting that our host hasn't yet taken Cappadonna's advice regarding his girl, though. Ghost's verses are uncharacteristically conversational, but "Enemies All Around Me" is all about place-setting.
7. AN UNEXPECTED CALL (THE SET UP) (FEAT. INSPECTAH DECK)
I'm sure you two can figure out where the story is going based on that song title alone. But just in case you're especially oblivious today: Tony Starks gets set up by his girl (turns out Cappadonna was on to something), which is strange, because I never imagined Ghostface Killah to be the type of guy who would let the promise of sweet loving cloud his judgment. Oh wait, this is a work of fiction, and not a documentary series? Okay then. In a very nice touch, after Pretty Toney is kidnapped, taunted, and (SPOILER ALERT BUT NOT REALLY IF YOU'RE LISTENING ALONG WHILE READING THROUGH THIS REVIEW, AND/OR ARE FAMILIAR WITH HOW REVENGE STORIES WORK!) ultimately murdered, Inspectah Deck takes to the microphone to explain what's happening elsewhere, because (a) Deck wasn't in the same room, so he can't really comment on Ghost's predicament aside from a few bare facts, and (b) Ghost isn't really left in a position where he could provide a second verse anyway. Continuity, people! Use it! Younge's beat was a bit disappointing, at least compared to what has led up to this point, but it definitely gets the job done, moving the tale forward to the third act.
8. THE RISE OF THE GHOSTFACE KILLAH (FEAT. THE RZA)
The first leak from Twelve Reasons To Die also turns out to be the point where the story shifts gears, as this is where we move from a violent street tale into full-on Uma Thurman-in-Kill Bill or Jamie Foxx-in-Django Unchained-mode. (I believe Quentin Tarantino himself would appreciate this flick if it actually existed, and would probably crib from it for a future project.) This song, which, conveniently enough, is about the rise of Ghostface Killah (out of the ashes of Tony Starks), is handled by Younge, Bob Perry, and Andrew Kelley (the latter two key components in the production of Wu-Tang Chamber Music and Legendary Weapons), because it took the combined efforts of the three producers (and The RZA, lending narration once again) to resurrect our host, apparently. Using the dope-as-fuck, vintage-Wu-sounding instrumental as a backdrop, Pretty Toney rises from the dead (or from the vinyl records his enemies apparently melted his corporeal form into...yeah, I don't know, either), and revenge is the order of the day, with a side of furious anger and a 32-ounce drink. Ghostface sounds appropriately pissed off at his mortal enemies (get it? Because they're just mere mortals! Okay, that was a bad joke), and his energy is palpable and contagious: if you refer to yourself as even a casual Wu-Tang stan and this song doesn't get you amped up, then you've been lying for years and need to go fuck yourself. Also, how often does the protagonist of any story get killed after the halfway point? This was pretty fucking amazing, and as an added bonus, Ghost channels the late Ol' Dirty Bastard at the end of the first verse, which I thought was sweet.
9. REVENGE IS SWEET (FEAT. MASTA KILLA, KILLA SIN, & THE RZA)
But not as sweet as revenge, obviously. Younge's instrumental is cold and methodical, just like our host's best-laid plans, so nice work, dude. The singing at the beginning is unnecessary and hurts my ears, but that's my only real complaint, as around the one-and-a-half minute mark, the vengeful spirit of Ghostface Killah starts taking his foes the fuck apart. Accompanying our host on his Retribution Tour 2013 is a surprisingly game Masta Killa, some more RZA narration that rationalizes the overall thought process when there really wasn't a need to do so (perhaps Younge and Ghost were concerned that the main character's motivation could potentially lose the audience? I don't know), and a scene-stealing Killa Sin (late of Killarmy, because hey, is that group even still a group anymore?), whose verse builds upon the comeback he's been working on for the past few years. With performances such as this, I'd like that Killa Sin solo album yesterday, please.
10. MURDER SPREE (FEAT. U-GOD, MASTA KILLA, INSPECTAH DECK, & KILLA SIN)
Soul Temple is pushing "Murder Spree" as the first official single from Twelve Reasons To Die, probably because they've long since figured out that the best way to sell a Wu-Tang project is by showcasing as many members of the group on the same track as possible, and this song features Ghostface rhyming alongside three of his brethren (and Killa Sin just because he's become kind of awesome as of late, although I'm not trying to discount his work as a part of Killarmy, so back off). Or maybe they just realized that this song was the tits: Ghost and his merry men all lecture on the myriad ways they plan on attacking the crime family that took him out, running alongside Younge's beat with purpose and without the slightest hint of a hook to give the listener a chance to breathe. Everyone turns in stellar performances: hell, when U-God threatened to blow up a car, I weirdly smiled at how good he sounded on here. What that says about me, I don't know.
11. THE SURE SHOT (PARTS 1 AND 2)
The second leak from Twelve Reasons To Die approximates how a Ghostface Killah song may sound if it were performed live by The Roots. (That idea's free, ?uestlove: feel free to get started on it as soon as you can.) Our host is on the tail end of his murder spree, his work becoming messier as he makes his way to the final boss, as though he's losing patience and just wants to avenge his death already. As one can tell from the title, this si a song presented in two parts, and the second half finds Pretty Toney reflecting on the conclusion of the story. He relates his character's state of mind with alarming clarity and resignation, and you find yourself believing that you, too, would totally murder your enemies who just killed you while taking on the form of a bulletproof ghost superhero with your visage, and that course of action is entirely justified. Younge's beat plays a large part in making this tale sound as grounded as it does.
12. 12 REASONS TO DIE (FEAT. THE RZA)
Twelve Reasons To Die ends with its title track, as The RZA ties up the tale while Younge lets his instrumental play through the end credits without interruption. Ghostface Killah doesn't appear on here: hell, nobody really does. But he didn't really need to: Younge's music is pleasing enough, and it carries a sense of finality that will leave the listener feeling that this revenge fantasy ended the only way it ever really could.
THE LAST WORD: Fuck yes.
THE REAL LAST WORD: The Wu-Tang Clan is no stranger to concept albums (see: all of the Bobby Digital projects; Masta Killa's Selling My Soul also sort-of qualifies; and who could forget Raekwon's Cuban Linx series), but Ghostface Killah's first foray into the field (because I don't count his "R&B album") is engaging, suspenseful, terrifying, and ultimately satisfying, much more so than his last attempt to ignore recording a solo album, Wu-Block. Twelve Reasons To Die is ultimately too short, with only eleven out of twelve tracks even containing any lyrics, but our host succeeds in leaving the audience wanting more, which he better follow up on really soon, because this shit runs for less than forty minutes. The guest appearances are all uniformly stellar, which is amazing for a Clan who has been in the hip hop game for twenty years this year, but the show belongs to Ghost and Younge, whose musical backing will encourage the listener to run out and grab up all of his other stuff. Younge turns in some fantastic work on here: fans of the Wu and/or Italian giallo will dig the shit out of this.