July 14, 2015

My Gut Reaction: Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah - Twelve Reasons To Die II (July 10, 2015)

Two years ago, Ghostface Killah teamed up with producer-slash-composer Adrian Younge to deliver Twelve Reasons To Die, an homage to 1960's Italian giallo flicks with an overly-violent storyline and the music to match.  Ghost starred as the lead, who was double-crossed and murdered by the Deluca crime family, but whose ashes were pressed up into twelve vinyl records, and also he somehow comes back to life to take out his enemies.  Hey, I never said the story made any goddamn sense.  But the fact of the matter is that it was entertaining as shit: Ghost and his team (made up of other Wu-Tang Clan members and also Killarmy's Killa Sin) stuck to their scripts and delivered a fantastic, critically-acclaimed concept album that actually told a coherent, if improbable, story, one that lent itself so easily to another medium that a comic book series was also commissioned.  

It was inevitable that a sequel would follow, is what I'm saying.


Unlike the first volume, Twelve Reasons To Die II features Adrian Younge's name in the credits first, possibly due to the much-higher profile he has enjoyed since the release of the original project.  Ghostface Killah is still the driving force behind the album, but this time around, he isn't the protagonist as much as he is a friendly, um, ghost that observes the actions and relays them back to the listener, with The RZA returning to narrate the parts that don't lend themselves so well to rhyme form.  The RZA is actually the only returning guest from the previous volume: not unlike Czarface's Every Hero Needs A Villain, Younge opted to use all-new collaborators to broaden the appeal of the project as a whole.

The protagonist this time around is gangster Lester Kane, portrayed by Raekwon in the most obvious bit of casting in hip hop history probably, and the location shifts from 1960's Italy to 1970's New York, where what is left of the Deluca family has relocated and reestablished their firm grip on all criminal activity in the area.  Kane has a personal vendetta against the Delucas, one which I will explain in the actual review, and eventually Ghostface Killah is brought in to help settle the score.  Up until that point, Ghost is really just reporting shit back to the listener, allowing the guest rappers to do most of the heavy lifting.  Younge has purposefully stacked the roster with West Coast acts such as Lyrics Born, Scarub, the newly-transplanted Chino XL, and blogger-favorite Vince Staples, in an effort to make Twelve Reasons To Die II sound less like a Wu-Tang Clan album, which he feels can sound fairly insular (he isn't wrong), and more like an epic story spanning tons of different eras and characters.  And Rae and The RZA, obviously, because he doesn't want anyone to revolt or anything.

As he did with the first volume, Younge produced Twelve Reasons To Die II in its entirety, switching out the original's giallo sound for that of 1970's American crime flicks.  He plays the instruments himself, sometimes up to ten on a single track.  Here's hoping that the possible third entry in this series explores the 1980's, as I would love to hear Ghostface Killah and whoever is left in the Clan that hasn't appeared as of yet (Method Man, maybe?  I've also said on Twitter that I think the GZA would make an excellent villain for the next chapter) spit fire over synths and shit.


(Warning: Spoilers follow.)

1.  POWERFUL ONE
An intro with no rapping, but the vocals provided do kick off the story somewhat, so it isn't entirely unnecessary, but you won't give a shit anyway.

2.  RETURN OF THE SAVAGE (FEAT. RAEKWON & THE RZA)
The first leak from Twelve Reasons To Die II was also the first actual song on the album.  Smart move, Ghost.  The narrative shifts to form around Raekwon's Lester Kane character, a gangster in 1970's New York seeking to seize all of the power and to erase the Deluca family in the process, as they were responsible for murdering his wife and son.  Ghost's, um, ghost pops up to help provide another perspective of the action, although he doesn't yet interact with anyone.  Story-wise, it's a pretty good way to kick off a sequel: it comes across more as another story in a shared universe than it does a direct continuation of the plot, although that will most definitely change in a bit.  Younge's instrumental recalls vintage Wu at times, which makes sense when you remember that early Wu trafficked in a lot of 1970s soul samples, and mostly bangs.  Rhyme-wise, though, this is a mixed bag: Pretty Toney's verse was pretty good (right on par with his performances on the first volume), but his hook is mind-numbingly awful and only exists to give the song its title.  Chef Raekwon, for some reason, has problems immediately adapting to the storyline, leaving awkward blank spaces in between a few of his bars.  But what he does say is decent.  The RZA once again provides narration, and it's nice that he took time out of his busy schedule to provide the project with some much-needed continuity.

3.  KING OF NEW YORK (FEAT. RAEKWON)
Ghostface Killah throws all of his spiritual support behind Lester Kane's campaign over a drum-heavy Younge creation that reminded me of when Rae and Ghost used to spit over older R&B tracks together for the hell of it: that is to say, this was pretty good.  Rae rebounds from "Return Of The Savage" by spitting a verse as though he's done it before and it's his day job and shit, while our host bookends the piece by pushing the violent players together.  The song title "King Of New York" is kind of meh, but luckily the track itself propels the story forward in an entertaining manner.  Time to go make some popcorn.

4.  RISE UP
The Adrian Younge-drum-heavy instrumental is pretty fucking great.  "Rise Up" is a bizarre track, though, because after Pretty Toney spits eight bars, guest star Scarub (of Living Legends fame) steps in to dominate with a Cappadonna "Winter Warz"-esque spotlight.  He doesn't sound bad by any means, but it is a bit strange that Ghostface Killah would step aside like that for a relative unknown.  It's not unheard of, but still.  Then again, the album credits confirm that this was more of Younge's album than Ghost's this time around.  Oh, the song itself was pretty good, why do you ask?

5.  DAILY NEWS
An interlude, essentially, albeit one where Ghostface Killah brings the audience up to speed about where everything stands at the moment.  At least Pretty Toney spits a (really short) verse, I guess, but this was kind of a waste of a track otherwise.

6.  GET THE MONEY (FEAT. VINCE STAPLES)
First off, Younge's beat is awesome in its elasticity and general disposition.  Secondly, "Get The Money", an otherwise-cliche song title saved by the performances from Ghost and his guest, proves that Vince Staples can both play well with groups and follow instructions.  Staples lends the track an excellent cameo that justifies why he was the most exciting non-Wu addition to this sage for me, but Pretty Toney is no slouch: even though his chorus is awful, his two verses unfold into flames, even if he does retread the same territory The RZA introduced at the end of "Return Of The Savage".  Still, a winner.

7.  DEATH'S INVITATION INTERLUDE(FEAT. THE RZA)
Speaking of The RZA, his narration pops back up just in time to helpfully transition this tale to another location, as Lester Kane stumbles upon Logan, who Prince Rakeem hilariously reminds the listener of as "the bitch that set [our host] up to be killed" in the first installment.  She expresses regret and even tells Kane about Ghost's secret son, which, drama!  So, obviously, Kane kidnaps them both to use as possible leverage against the Deluca family.  Because that will clearly turn out well.

8.  DEATH'S INVITATION (FEAT. SCARUB, LYRICS BORN, & CHINO XL)
Features what is quite possibly the most unexpected guest list of any Wu-Tang Clan project, either solo or group.  Pretty Toney's only contribution to "Death's Invitation" is the spoken-word intro, performed with no backing music and with one gloriously glaring anachronism ("Let's make a video"?  It was the 1970's, my dude.  Even if they had managed to get a hold of equipment that TV stations used to film news segments, it doesn't seem realistic that anyone would have sent videotapes through the mail back then).  He steps aside before the jazzy-as-fuck (nobody's complaining here) Adrian Younge beat kicks in, allowing guest stars Scarub, Lyrics Born, and, of all people, Chino XL to detail a violent ambush, sometimes in the most graphic detail possible, that leaves Lester Kane without many remaining options, although at least he's breathing at the end of it all.  While the varying deliveries of the three guests disrupt the flow of "Death's Invitation", they each make their own mark on the track, and overall, I felt this banged.  Not quite as fun as its spiritual predecessor, Twelve Reasons To Die's "Murda Spree", but still.  Hey, does anyone else remember U-God's verse on "Murda Spree"?   Pretty good, right?

9.  LET THE RECORD SPIN INTERLUDE (FEAT. THE RZA)
RZA's line readings during this interlude are kind of cheesy, but at least everyone and their mother will understand the price Lester agrees to pay in exchange for assistance from the Ghostface Killah.  The background music was pleasant.

10.  LET THE RECORD SPIN (FEAT. RAEKWON)
Ghost is (finally!) resurrected and allowed to play in the sandbox with the other kids.  Rae and Ghost's chemistry still cannot be denied today, even when both men are forced to stick to a script, and it's downright exciting to hear these two sound so jazzed to work together to finish off the Deluca family once and for all, even though Lester Kane won't get to enjoy his victory for very long, as per the agreement.  The beat mashes organs and drums masterfully, and the bars are fire, especially those from the alert Chef.  The hook is ass, though: was that shit really necessary, Younge?

11.  BLACKOUT (FEAT. RAEKWON)
Well, the war's on.  Rae and Ghost tag-team on "Blackout", an altogether great track that would sound like it was lifted from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Part II had it not been for the references to Lester Kane.  It's that good.  The duo confidently pass the microphone back and forth for a murder spree, with Ghost bashing a disco ball into someone's face (because "It's the 70s", after all) and the Chef concerned with slipping in all of the blood that will be shed (which reminded me of Rae slipping on soap but still managing to take down his enemies on Ghost's fantastic "The Hilton").  WIth shit like this, it was worth Raekwon not appearing on the first installment.  Younge's instrumental is driving and demanding, forcing the participants to wrap things up in less than two minutes.  Applause, sirs.

12.  RESURRECTION MORNING (FEAT. RAEKWON & BILAL)
So the deal was that Ghost agreed to help Lester Kane take out his enemies (who were also Ghost's enemies, conveniently enough) in exchange for Lester's human form, so that our host could walk amongst the living once again.  Yeah, I know, realistic as hell.  Anyway, "Resurrection Morning" features Raekwon living up to his end of the bargain, slitting his own throat while Ghostface watches and ponders a future for his son, who he just found out is a person that exists, who would be forced to grow up without any parents, since Pretty Toney would become Kane and Logan would, come on, you think she's really long for this story after Ghost found her?  Bilal only bookends the piece with a pleasant chorus, for those of you two who get worried about that sort of thing, but the song belongs to Adrian Younge's film score, which is fucking great, really.  It's too bad Raekwon's character arc ends here, unless he's available to pop up as a vengeful spirit on the next chapter or something.  

13.  LIFE'S A REBIRTH (FEAT. THE RZA)
The RZA claims that Lester Kane blew his brains out, which isn't what actually happened: who the fuck knows why Younge let that flub slip past.  But Kane's story is still finished, even more so now that Ghostface Killah has chosen to inhabit the body of his son instead of Lester's, so that he can "live as a reincarnated Tony Starks", as it were.  Pretty Toney kills Logan (told you that was going to happen), as he's still pretty bitter about that whole "getting set up and murdered" thing, and seemingly lives happily ever after, at least according to The RZA's closing narration.  Will there be a sequel?  Well, The RZA sure as fuck sets one up, and if Younge is capable of delivering dope-as-shit film-scores-as-rap-instrumentals and can still reign in Ghostface Killah's tendencies to float off the deep end as often as he does, I would certainly welcome a close to the (unofficial as of this writing) trilogy.  Fin.

THE LAST WORD:  Although I wish Younge and Ghost had trusted the audience to fill in the blanks instead of recording insipid hooks for some of the tracks, I still found Twelve Reasons To Die II to be a worthy follow-up.  Like all good sequels, it retains what worked in the original recipe, all while ramping up the violence and overt craziness, which couldn't have been that easy to do, given how bananas this storyline is anyway.  Ghostface Killah's bars are leagues more focused than whatever the fuck he was doing on his last project, Sour Soul, although the credit for that most likely falls in Adrian Younge's lap, as Younge is the ringmaster of this ridiculous circus, which would make Raekwon the Chef the bearded lady and The RZA the kid that sells popcorn and cotton candy out front.  This analogy makes no sense.  Younge's musical backing is, thankfully, not exactly the same as its predecessor: his evolution as an artist is prevalent here, and the actual music is great-to-fucking great, which isn't surprising, considering his previous work.  Thank the deity of your choice that the physical disc version of this shit comes with all of the instrumentals.  Twelve Reasons To Die II isn't better than the original, but it is on par with the first installment, which is admirable in and of itself.  Here's hoping that mythical third installment isn't cheesy as shit, though: I don't care to hear Ghostface Killah rapping from the point-of-view of a child.  I've already listened to Supreme Clientele's "Child's Play".  I'm good.

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Ghostface Killah, Adrian Younge, the obligatory Wu-Tang Clan link, and fuck it, why not Chino XL?  He doesn't have that many links on the site.




16 comments:

  1. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

    Spot on gut reaction. Really, well played.

    I still love Ghost's bars on Sour Soul, so you're definitely wrong about that particular tidbit.

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    1. Ghost's work on Sour Soul pales in comparison to this. Hell, it pales in comparison to his R&B album. Agree to disagree.

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    2. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

      Nah they can't be that bad, Max. At least, they're on par with The Big Doe Rehab

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    3. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

      But still, to each his own anyway.

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    4. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

      Although I will agree that it pales to this.

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  2. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

    Mr. Max. May I remind you that the crediting on this album reads EXACTLY as it does on its prequel. On a more serious note: Some period you chose to focus on the West Coast, huh?

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    Replies
    1. Not if you read the spines of both albums. Assuming you have the physical copies, of course.

      As for the West Coast thing: well, yeah.

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    2. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

      Nah. Stopped buying physicals a long time ago.

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  3. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

    Your idea for the 3rd 12 Reasons would be pretty good. GZA need to get on more songs and put his next album out but I aint holding my breath. I hope the Meth Lab is good at least.

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  4. AnonymousJuly 14, 2015

    Da fuq is GZA doing lately?? Nothing!
    Great review - gonna get this one. Thank God Ghost's lyricism stepped up after Sour Soul

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  5. Excellent review, as always. I really enjoyed the album too and have the same hopes of seeing the GZA and Meth bringing the ruckus on the more-than-likely third opus.

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  6. AnonymousJuly 15, 2015

    Funny how most online sites aren't giving this album enough love. I figured Adrian Younge wouldn't disappoint. Gonna download this baby really soon.

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  7. Ghost has released 3 projects within a 9 month period, and could be the only rapper who van get away with it without over saturating the market.

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  8. AnonymousJuly 27, 2015

    Dear Cheffy,

    As much as I fucking LOVED your displays on here, I still can't seem to forgive the wackness that was FILA. You're going to have to work REAL hard to make us forget that one.

    Brush your teeth.

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    Replies
    1. Cheffy.... LMMFAO

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  9. great review, Max!

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