Pretty Toney has spent the past few years of his career challenging himself with his solo albums, enforcing restrictions and, as a result, sharpening his storytelling skills, thanks to the highly-regarded Twelve Reasons To Die and 36 Seasons concept albums, on which he forced himself (and his varied guests) to stick to a specific script, all while being supported by a single producer (Adrian Younge for Twelve Reasons To Die, and The Revelations for 36 Seasons), which lent a sense of cohesion and continuity to the proceedings.
Now Ghostface may have been doing all of this just because he was bored rapping about random generic topics, but he obviously enjoyed it enough, since he also opted to record an entire album with the Canadian jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD, Sour Soul, the subject of today's post, obviously.
I admit I only had a passing familiarity with BBNG prior to hearing about this project's existence, but a quick listen to a couple of their tracks show some obvious talent within the Toronto-based trio (who all met while in school). They specialize in modern jazzy improvisation, but have an obvious love of our chosen genre, and have applied their aesthetic to their own interpretations of rap instrumentals, which have caught the ear of the likes of Odd Future and the Wu-Tang Clan, not to mention all of the hip hop bloggers who have already jumped on this bandwagon previously in an attempt to always be the first to claim something. Well, I stand behind the fact that I legitimately didn't listen to these guys until just recently, and I'm willing to bet that a lot of you two haven't taken the time, either.
Anyway, Ghostface Killah and The RZA clearly became fans, since BBNG's first two albums (made up of covers mixed in with original compositions) quickly led them to working on two of the tracks on RZA's The Man With The Iron Fists soundtrack alongside producer Frank Dukes, who already had a steady working relationship with the Clan. One of those two songs was the Wu's own "Rivers Of Blood", which featured Ghost, and I guess a connection was made, because now I'm writing about Sour Soul, so I guess they all liked each other or something.
Sour Soul isn't a concept album in the storytelling sense: there is no cohesion or ongoing narrative. Instead, Ghostface Killah merely spits his rhymes over music produced entirely by BBNG and Frank Dukes. You know, like how rappers used to do it before big studio money entered the picture. I swear, I don't like how we're all expected to go apeshit now about rap albums that are entirely produced by one guy or one team; I guess everything old is new again.
If anyone in the Wu would be a great fit for BBNG's jazzy inflections and moody riffs, I suppose Ghostface Killah would be the number one choice, so the project at least makes logical sense. It appears BBNG thought so, anyway, since absolutely nobody else in the Wu was invited to the party: the guest list is limited to third parties such as Danny Brown and MF DOOM. Also, Pretty Toney only raps on nine of the twelve tracks presented: the remaining three are instrumental showcases.
I'm just hoping this Toronto-Shaolin connection is at least better than the last time someone tried this shit.
Sets the live instrumentation, jazzy tone, but Starks is nowhere to be found.
2. SOUR SOUL
As much as I like some of The Revelations' work on Wu-Tang Chamber Music, Legendary Weapons, and Ghost's own 36 Seasons, I tend to seem them as a live band made up of skilled mimics who can do great impressions of Wu-Tang backing tracks that technically didn't exist before they recorded them. For “Sour Soul”, the title track, BADBADNOTGOOD stick to their jazzy instrumental script, forcing Ghostface Killah to cede to their demands. This apparently made Pretty Toney uncomfortable, as his two verses are weak sauce, the second of which diving headfirst into conspiracy theory angles better suited for a Kool Keith side project. The music was appropriately moody and moving, though. Doesn't bode well for Ghost's half of the project, I gotta say.
3. SIX DEGREES (FEAT. DANNY BROWN)
Although there is a hint of Wu-Tang flourish on “Six Degrees”, BBNG never succumb to the pressure, coercing Ghost and guest star Danny Brown to play nice, lest they take their ball and go home. Detroit's Danny Brown, currently raking in what is certainly middling ABC royalty checks for his theme song on chef and overall personality Eddie Huang's show Fresh Off The Boat, checks off a second name on his Wu-Tang collabo list, having previously worked with Chef Raekwon on the soundtrack to The Man With The Iron Fists, and now Tony Starks on “Six Degrees”, spitting the middle verse with a conviction lacking from Ghost himself, who seems to have been using throwaway couplets on here. Dude, if you're not going to take this seriously, why even participate?
4. GUNSHOWERS (FEAT. ELZHI)
Ghostface Killah at least seems to give a minute amount of shit about “Gunshowers”, a duet with Detroit's Elzhi on which he still doesn't sound like peak Starks, but it still works. Over BBNG's demure, meandering instrumental (I meant that in a good way, I promise), Dennis and Elzhi (who comes across as a slightly-more-marketable GZA knock-off, once again a compliment) spit verses while boasting about their respective rap prowess. “Gunshowers” is the first moment on Sour Soul that actually connects on all levels: all that's missing is a cameo from Raekwon. Speaking of which, the Chef certainly has taught a master class in avoiding Ghostface Killah concept albums at this point, hasn't he? I mean, come on: he would have sounded perfect on 36 Seasons.
5. STARK'S REALITY
Title aside, this is merely an excellent instrumental interlude that isn't trip-hoppy in the least, but still achieves Portishead-levels of depth and despair. Nice work.
6. TONE'S RAP
Pretty Toney steps back into the booth to spit for dolo on “Tone's Rap”. Unfortunately, his performance is pretty fucking terrible, which is made obvious when the first three intelligible words of the track come out of his mouth: “What up, bitch?” I suppose he's trying to adopt a persona that is a mix between an embittered pimp and his own younger self on Ironman's “Wildflower”, but he sounds like a cranky old fucker on “Tone's Rap”, spitting venom in all directions like a sprinkler head damaged by those damn kids that won't stay off of his lawn. This was bad, folks. We've called for rappers to hang it up over less horrible verses. Groan.
7. MIND PLAYING TRICKS
I never took into account that being forced to write around a preconceived concept may have been beneficial for Ghostface's process: if “Mind Playing Tricks” (and everything else on Sour Soul, really) is indicative of how Pretty Toney sounds today when he's able to write without restrictions, then God fucking help Supreme Clientele 2. BBNG's musical backing pumps much more energy into the proceedings than before, and at least Ghost comes across as aware that the tempo has changed, but “Mind Playing Tricks” isn't anything special. Dear fucking Lord.
8. STREET KNOWLEDGE (FEAT. TREE)
Chicago rapper Tree's syrupy-slow flow opens “Street Knowledge”, mirroring the intensity of BBNG's backing instrumental: while he doesn't spit anything overly sensational, he still sounds pretty good on what will be his first national showcase (relatively speaking). Ghostface Killah, in contrast, spins his wheels, from the inane hook (“Street knowledge / We put these books to the test”) to a verse that could literally represent the last few creative ions in his brain being tapped dry while he was writing that chorus. This would have worked as a Tree solo effort, though: perhaps some more underground rappers should lift the Sour Soul instrumentals for personal use?
9. RAY GUN (FEAT. MF DOOM)
I get that I'm supposed to be impressed that BBNG were able to secure an MF DOOM guest verse on Sour Soul, giving Wu stans a preview of the Ghost/DOOM collaboration DOOMStarks that will never fucking see the light of day, but that doesn't automatically make “Ray Gun” a must-listen or anything. The only thing worth a damn on here is the music, which is far more dramatic and moving than either Dennis or Daniel deserve, as they each spit their single verses with the conviction of a fast food worker who really wishes they called in today. BBNG even completely change the music during the final minute: clearly these guys are just showing off now.
10. NUGGETS OF WISDOM
A track that runs for a bit over two minutes and Ghostface Killah makes up not even half of it. Did he knock out all of these verses in a half hour or something? His lack of quality control shines through on “Nuggets Of Wisdom”, as he spits platitudes and the kind of generic advice that your friend-of-a-friends and coworkers constantly pass around on Facebook. I think you can even hear him and his accountant discuss which bills will get paid off with his Sour Soul check at one point. Oh well. The music is good, though: I'm pretty sure 4th Disciple or Mathematics will mistake the beat for an old soul record and sample it for someone on the Wu's B-team very soon.
Ghostface Killah has spent a lot of his career dropping references to food in his rhymes, so it's nice to know that he's self-aware enough to make fun of himse...oh, wait, no, I'm wrong: “Food” is short for “food for thought”, making this a companion piece to the preceding “Nuggets Of Wisdom”, a phrase he even repeats on here for good measure, thereby proving my theory that he recorded all of this shit in half an hour and couldn't even be bothered to make sure he didn't repeat himself. BBNG's jazzy instrumental keeps a low profile, only jumping into frame after Pretty Toney half-assedly lobs his darts, which, still, are some of his best work of the entire album, but still aren't very good. The music is soothing as shit, though.
Sour Soul caps off the evening with a final instrumental break that will leave listeners diving into BBNG's previous work. “Experience” is end credit theme music for a movie that needed a more engaged lead actor. Really good, though.
THE LAST WORD: This is going to hurt, so fuck it, let's rip the Band-Aid off now: Ghostface Killah sounds lazy and terrible on a great majority of Sour Soul. It's clear that the pressures surrounding Twelve Reasons To Die, 36 Seasons, and possibly all of the infighting during the recording sessions of the Wu's own A Better Tomorrow have taken their toll on the Clan's most consistent rapper, as his bars on here are on the same level as no-name mixtape rappers who traffic in swiping beats and flows in an effort to make a name for themselves: at times, Ghostface Killah comes across as an off-brand Action Bronson, and my Lord did it sting to write that last statement. Musically, Sour Soul is kind of awesome, though: BBNG have only gotten better with time, and having Frank Dukes corral all of their wildest impulses has clearly helped the trio hone in on the finer points of their jazzy interpretation of hip hop. They have excellent taste in guest stars not named MF DOOM, as well: the lesser-known names trump Pretty Toney at every turn, and they don't even have to try all that hard. Far from the instant classic other hip hop sites may have you believe, Sour Soul is half brilliant and half fucking awful, with what is ostensibly the star attraction failing his musical partners nearly every step of the way. All is not lost on the Ghostface front, however: if the man insists on crafting concept albums as an exercise in not losing his way, might I suggest tag-teaming with Raekwon on a project at least executive-produced by Kanye West? You know it could work: they both already have working relationships with Yeezy, and since The RZA has pretty much flown the coop at this point, 'Ye could bring out the best in both of them. But for now, don't go into Sour Soul expecting great lyricism, or else you'll stumble away disappointed as shit.
Wu-Tang. Ghostface solos. You know the drill.
Wu-Tang. Ghostface solos. You know the drill.