March 3, 2015

My Gut Reaction: BADBADNOTGOOD + Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul (February 24, 2015)

West Coast focus notwithstanding, you two didn't really think I was going to flat-out ignore a new Ghostface Killah project, did you?

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.

1. MONO
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.

11. FOOD
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.

12. EXPERIENCE
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.

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Wu-TangGhostface solos.  You know the drill.


30 comments:

  1. When you said that you were taking a detour into the west coast i hardly believe that you meant GFK. Review Dilated Peoples, The Alchemist, Stepbrothers or the Gibbs x Madlib joint. It all technically constitutes under "west coast".

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    1. Dude. First sentence of the post. Come on.

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    2. LOL. I thought the music on this project was dope, but yeah lyrically for Ghost it was really weak. Appropriate but painful review

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  2. Yeah, came away with a similar impression - Ghost lets down the unreal production on this. I hope he steps it up for DOOMSTARKS - if not, it would be crushingly disappointing, given the massive years-long hype.

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  3. Damn, what a shame. I guess the 'half brilliant' part of your assertment was BBNG, and not song-wise. How the great have fallen.

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    1. Yeah. BBNG's contributions were uniformly excellent.

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  4. he obviously needs to stop pumping out material so fast, he's clearly running out of ideas.

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  5. Great review! Nice having you back, although it's a shame about the album. I didn't find Ghostface to be in top form either, despite the inspiring backing...

    Speaking of albums handled by a single producer (I totally agree with you, it should be a rule, not something exceptional), I wouldn't mind seeing Method Man work with an interesting producer like Adrian Younge, The Automator or Appollo Brown, considering Crystal Meth might never see the light of day if he continues waiting for the RZA (or not for the next 88 years!...).

    By the way, would The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head count as a West Coast release? It was recorded in California, so you never know...

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    1. Ehh...that might be bending the rules a little bit. Which I'm not against by any means. I haven't yet decided, though.

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    2. I'll wait and see, then.

      Oh, and I love the idea of a Kanye West-produced Ghostface/Raekwon collaboration album. That would be mental!

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    3. DJ Premier produced Inspectah Deck album

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    4. PRhyme-DJ Premier, maybe. Regular DJ Premier, no. Deck and Adrian Younge, sure. ODB and Prince Paul, pipe dream.

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    5. Are you serious MAX ???
      PRhyme just proved you WRONG that DJ Premier still has it in him, and yet you still have balls to say:
      'Regular DJ Premier, no'
      Shame on you max.

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    6. Um, I'm thinking you misinterpreted my first two statements there, so allow me to spell it out for you: If Primo brings his PRhyme self to the sessions, with the inspiration that came with him forcing a restriction based on the artist he chose to sample (it doesn't have to be the same restriction, but something had to be implemented that allows him to focus on the task at hand), then he might be able to pull it off. However, if all Deck got was "regular" DJ Premier, i.e., the guy who these days releases mostly sub-par boom bap with fifty chopped-up vocal samples serving as a hook because now that's all he does, with the occasional gem hidden in there now and then, then I don't even see a point to the exercise, really.

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    7. Never in my life I'd think to see the day where a blogger bitches about DJ Premier. Fuck your bitch ass.

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    8. Note to self: Don't argue with Max or it will get ugly.

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    9. I like the idea of DJ Premier and Deck. On a bonus PRhyme track, maybe?
      Adrian Younge could work well with Deck, but I'd be even more curious to hear what Raekwon or Method Man could come up with, if they worked together.
      Prince Paul and ODB would have been bonkers (with a 1991-sounding Busta Rhymes guest performance too).

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    10. Deck is done. Lets just stick to Ghost & Rae. they're the ONNLY Wu members still making good music.

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    11. Deck is done? What about Czarface?????

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    12. What about Czarface, indeed? That comes right after Uncontrolled Substance as the best material he ever put out. Manifesto is a far third.
      Ghost's package pretty much delivers here, even if it is a titanic step down from his standard. I like this album much more than Big Doe Rehab or the RNB album.
      As for Rae, I'm sorry but Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang was fucking garbage and from the looks of things, FILA is gonna be at least just as bad. Wake me up when OB4CL3 comes out.
      U-God has been on quite the "Redemption" run, as of late. Dopium & Keynote Speaker were very pleasantly surprising, most of the time.
      Masta Killa broke my heart big time with his Selling My Soul crap. I hope he goes back to his NSD/MIB steez yesterday, please.
      As of this very moment, GZA is the ONLY Wu member who, in my eyes, has NEVER put out a whack album, so I remain optimistic about that Dark Matter album. Blasphemy Alert: I'm including Words From The Genius & Beneath The Surface in that statement. It is what it is.
      I'm interested in what Mef's cooking up, whether with Red or solo.
      I don't know how true is RZA's statement that he's done with rap, but if it is, I'm mostly pleased with (2nd Blasphemy Alert) A Better Tomorrow. Furthermore, Bobby Digital's last outing is further proof that the persona should've been retired permanently.
      The only material outta Oh Donna's entire solo discography that still gets regular spins in my iPhone is his True Master tracks from The Pillage. Nothing else from him is worth my attention.
      Finally, RIP ODB. SOMEONE RELEASE THAT ROCAFELLA ALBUM ALREADY!!!!

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    13. First of all, you DO know that ODB's (RIP) A Son Unique leaked 9 years ago, right?

      As far as Meth goes, hate to be the bearer of bad news but it looks like he's done with rap, too.

      You like A Better Tomorrow? Better watch yourself out there coz a big chunk of Wu stans are pretty extreme about differing opinions.

      Pretty much agree with everything else you stated.

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  6. This album was kind of whatever to me, I liked the music a lot, but Ghost didn't really do much for me. Only fuck with a couple of the songs, plus the instrumentals.

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  7. He was bound to have a clunker sooner or later. I mean, think about it. The man has been dropping quality solo albums since Apollo Kids.

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  8. It just goes to show: even when Ghost is whack he's still dope. This is still a dope album.

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    1. Good point.

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    2. i agree. while i did have higher hopes for this album, the music makes it worth it. ghost just looks tired and bored lately. i saw him do a song for 36 seasons on fallon and he looked like he would rather be taking a shit. i think he should probably take a break this year though.

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    3. Methinks Lord Superb is gonna come outta nowhere bellowing at the top of his lungs: "I told you I wrote Supreme Clientele!!!"

      And some dude on the Wu forums is actually claiming that Trife Diesel ghostwrote all of Ghost's good shit 04-10!!! Another "internet wonder" who's "on to something." FUCK OUTTA HERE!!!

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  9. this album is terrible. Ghost sounds lazy and this live instrumentation crap in hip hop's gotta go. I need those hard drums and magical loops. Sorry. BBNG doesn't cut it. No one in Stapleton's checking for them.

    I don't really know who Ghost should work with. The East Coast has only ONE new producer worth talking about, and that's Clams Casino. a) he's not really suitable for Ghostface and b) he fell off already. Which leaves zero new dope East Coast producers. It's not looking good.

    Maybe Juju's got a beat in the stash...

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    1. Fuck trap rap, b.

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    2. I personally like live instrumentation. To each his own

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