Review Summary: Soulful, abrasive, and grimy as hell, Twelve Reasons to Die is the essence of Hip Hop
Greek mythologies, as presented to us from the virtuous quill of the great Homer and the royal Virgil, focus on the great hero, the conqueror, who came forth and attained his glory through trials and tribulations. These epic heroes form the archetypes are what we model our modern idols after. This higher position is attained when a man – a hero – succeeds in his task, conquers the herculean challenge laid out before him and emerges victorious above these tribulations. And hence he attains immortality.
And here’s where we find the tale of The Ghostface Killah.
During the late 90’s, with the deconstruction of the New York outfit Wu-Tang Clan, each member went on to either achieve fame with their solo outing – Raekwon, Method Man, RZA – or fall within numbed obscurity, i.e. Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa. But the one member whose consistency rose above the rest of the brethren, was Ghostface. By combining his wise-cracking street-tales, mixed with the intoxicated flow he would seamlessly weave together, by the mid-aughts GFK had become the most prolific member of the clan. But after establishing his reputation, Ghostface entered a slump which saw the release of three middling albums. It seemed that he was lacking the drive, the kick that had pushed him to create the funky, stream-of-conscious rap that’s now being deemed innovative (looking at you Jeremiah Jae!) But because necessity is the mother of invention, Ghostface reached out to a relatively obscure producer to give him the soundtrack to attempt something new, something unique for Hip Hop: a concept album. While having a thematic outline was nothing new to the Wu, a full-on story was something not oft-attempted in the genre. But the responsibility of crafting the soundscape to Ghostface’s narrative fell on the shoulders of Californian maestro Adrian Younge. Younge had only recently gained his exposure by producing the soundtrack to the 2009 blaxploitation film Black Dynamite, and revitalizing the Philadelphia soul outfit, the Delfonics. And together they give all the other sub-par rappers of the world, their twelve reasons to die.
The setting is murky, the beats are grimy, but the rhythms are soulful. These seemingly paradoxical patterns are crafted exquisitely by Younge to give the parchment upon which Ghostface scribbles the tale of Tony Starks: ‘Black Tone’ is the rising black gangster within the Italian-dominated Mafioso, and the album chronicles his rise to power, the creation of The Ghostface Killah, and the consequences of what happens when the mafia fights back. Ghostface is at his best here, putting together a narration of events and happenings in real-time. The album starts off with a meta-narrative of the events in Beware of the Stare
, that tells of the scenarios that will take place, so the listener is captivated into unfolding the events of the story. However, the rhymes are not purely chronicling the events in a timeline, but rather a metaphorical reflection of the racial attitudes that were prevalent among society. Tony is simply not reiterating his own life events and what he saw, but also commenting upon the social atmosphere. “I had hoes, bankrolls and minks by the dozen/my rise to power was quick, they just wasn't/trying to make me a made-man, they ***ed up the game plan/I blacked out on them and started my own clan/Black Gambinos” he tells us on Rise of the Black Suits
, setting up the racially-instigated conflict we should expect from such a bloody tale.
Adrian Younge, like the director on any film set, behind the camera directs Ghost’s attention through the manipulation of emotions, via the production. The landscape is filled with swelling organs, thumping hi-hats, sharp symphonic waves and crusted drums. The rhythmic kicks that Younge spreads throughout the mise en scène provides a soul-themed sound to the album, a well-versed staple of Younge’s background as a student of the 70’s music. The blues and R&B values are obvious to notice here; from the arpeggio fused beat and rhyming on Blood on the Cobblestone
– where Tony raps about the war that has been brought to his door by his enemies, the Delucas, and that retaliation is the necessary next step – to the flute pattern, with distorted feedback in the background, on The Centre of Attention
, the influences that Younge takes his cues from are magnificently incorporated into the production. The latter track even manages to capitalize a good verse from the wretchedly hyperbolic Cappadonna. Even the attention-grabbing contralto snuck into the bridge of I Declare War
feels rightfully placed by the translucent formation done by Younge on the album.
GFK’s revitalized energy pushes him to pack as many imagery and metaphors into a rhyme, but not overtly-saturating it, to the point in becomes a mindless battle-rap brag. On The Rise of the Ghostface Killah
he spits “Left the bitch in the back with no tongue as the survivor/raw dog spit in her mouth, disappear in a swarm of killer bees/cripple em from their knees/take they legs out; nigga you know the steez/I'm a nighthawk, eagle eye, power of mind control/faster than the speed of light, you catch a big hole.” This is Ghostface’s declaration of arrival as the anti-hero. He is no longer merely content with the enemies, but now these personal tragedies have become involved in the revenge plot he has concocted. The production, coupled with Stark’s energy, even brings forth impressive verses from the featured guests. The regular Wu-Tang roster of U-God, Masta Killa and Killa Sin bring their A-game to the album, and even Inspectah Deck puts his new found relevancy (a la Czarface) to good use on An Unexpected Call (The Set Up)
Is Twelve Reasons to Die
the next step in the evolution of Hip Hop? Or does it owe a debt to the pioneering sound from where it came? Some might even argue that it is a regression back into the old school sounds of the 80’s and 90’s. Of course, the obvious answer is: it is neither. It is an album convened by two entities of the genre, both of whom love and respect its influences. Ghostface has never been shy about his inspirations when it comes to music; he proudly wears them on his sleeves. And Younge is the exact producer who represents the crux of what morphed Dennis Coles into Ghostface Killah, and therefore Twelve Reasons results as the byproduct of the cyclical nature that Hip Hop has always attained. What’s old, becomes new, and what’s new ascends higher. This is the story that RZA should have made instead of The Man with the Iron Fist
. It’s a tale of power, money, greed, respect, and above all, adulation for the self-made man. Twelve Reasons to Die
is the very essence of Hip Hop itself.