Thursday, April 18, 2013

Album Review: Ghostface Killah - Twelve Reasons to Die

Album Grade: B
In the middle of the previous decade, it became in vogue to combine forms of media for mass consumption: Green Day’s American Idiot and Queen’s career (as cataloged in a book by Ben Elton) were adapted for the stage — comic book movies became the hottest Hollywood commodity — musical theater-inspired TV shows hit the airwaves in droves.  In 2013, Ghostface Killah has eliminated the middleman and done it all at once, writing an album based on a comic book that feels like a play and was written with composer Adrian Younge, best known for writing the score of 2009’s cult classic Black Dynamite.

This bizarre combination figures Ghostface as something of a rap game Quentin Tarantino- combining all of the things he likes to create an epic of an album. Twelve Reasons To Die follows protagonist Tony Starks, played by Ghostface, a Mafioso living in Italy circa 1960 whose rivalry with the DeLuca family and his relationship with a double-crossing get him whacked at the end of the first act. The second act has Starks rising from the grave as the Ghostface Killah and exacting revenge on those who murdered him. If it sounds a little bit chopsocky, well, that’s because it is.

The most intriguing part of the album is its structure. Ghostface is a good storyteller, but he sounds a bit lazy talking about the stereotypical “Drive-bys and molotovs” endemic to mafia living. There’s little room for lyrical creativity lest he sacrifice clarity of the story. This fault is almost compensated for by how well Twelve Reasons to Die is made. Each song, except for posse cut “Murder Spree,” functions as a scene- Starks with his lady, Starks and his henchman (played by Inspectah Deck) are killed, Ghostface gets revenge and leaves the bodies in the ocean- and the intentionally long fade-outs act as a “fade to black,” as if the runners are breaking down the set between scenes. Omniscient narration from the RZA, choral elements provided by William Hart and the instrumental final song only add to the faux-Greek tragic atmosphere.

While listening to Twelve Reasons to Die, it’s hard not to think of Django Unchained, a film that expertly told a revenge story while its soundtrack combined modern music with a traditional, Spaghetti Western-style score. Younge is perhaps the star of the album, expertly commanding a full orchestra in emulation of Ennio Morricone while experimenting with elements like record scratching to create a more grizzled sound. The score is bleak yet murky, relying on few instruments playing simultaneously to do his job. The drum kit and guitar are his weapons of choice, perhaps betraying Younge’s fascination with 1970’s era psychedelic music, but still utilizes flute loop, spacious piano bars and horn ensembles to create the backbone of the soundtrack.

Special commendation also belongs to the supporting roles, especially the “Bottom 3” Wu-Tang Clan MCs Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa, who interact with our protagonist extremely well. Their verses act like dialogue — U-God warns Starks that his girl is setting him up, Deck gets a near-death monologue — and are used to advance the album’s storyline in a natural way. As members of Black Tone’s crew, they aren’t central figures, closer to Luca Brasi than Michael Corleone, but their cameos are most beneficial with the benefit of context. The supporting cast doesn’t come through with any cutting edge rhymes, nor do they throw out any callbacks to lines on Enter the Wu-Tang or current culture as Ghost is apt to do, but to get too flashy would be to betray the integrity of their characters. In this case, it’s better that they remained vanilla.

Twelve Reasons to Die is nothing short of a creative triumph — a furious blend of media held together by the threads of continuity offered by Ghostface as well as the superb scoring ability of Adrian Younge. However, when we put casting ambition aside, we see a finished product low on substance (around 35 minutes of actual story) and replete with tired rhymes. Ghostface is still one of the best wordsmiths alive, but his energy simply isn’t there anymore. Perhaps this is a product of the environment, as there is limited space for brags or complicated lines when telling a story, which are two of his trademarks. However, not even when he is exacting revenge on the Deluca mob does he vary his tone or pace. It’s all very monotone, saved by the grace of the Younge’s unique beats and the tightly woven story, which thankfully shine so brightly that it’s easy to overlook the blandness of our leading man and just become saturated by the atmosphere and the plot. 

1. Beware of the Stare
2. Rise of the Black Suits
3. I Declare War
4. Blood on the Cobblestones
5. The Center of Attraction
6. Enemies All Around Me
7. An Unexpected Call (The Setup)
8. The Rise of the Ghostface Killah
9. The Catastrophe
10. Murder Spree
11. The Sure Shot (Parts One and Two)
12. 12 Reasons to Die

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