Apr 23, 2013

Music Review: "12 Reasons to Die" by Ghostface Killah


By Ian Cory

The Wu-Tang Clan have come the closest to nailing a very specific cinematic approach in their music. RZA’s orchestral samples, kung-fu movie clips and rickety drum loops worked as a brilliant backdrop for the comic book superheroes meets Scorsese mobster cast of characters that made up the Wu’s MCs. The occasional wailing R&B hook that the group would add also worked as a cultural link between blaxplotation films and James Bond themes. Since the group’s heyday faded only a few of their ranks have been able to remain relevant in hip-hop’s ever changing landscape, namely Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, unsurprisingly the two MCs most dedicated to narrative storytelling. Although he’s long since past his lyrical prime, Ghostface soldiers on with 12 Reasons To Die, a record whose ambitious concept doesn’t match its lazy execution.

On paper, this should be my favorite hip-hop record of the year. First off, Ghostface’s last record Apollo Kids was surprisingly strong and focused, and his guest verse on Kanye’s “New God Flow” was an absolute monster. On top of that, the entire record was recorded a by a live band picking sounds somewhere between classic soul and Ennio Morricone. Finally, the lyrics are a single continuous narrative that serves as an origin story for Ghostface, who is double crossed by his crime family and then resurrected for vengeance via 12 vinyl albums made from his ashes, complete with between song narration by RZA. This is about as complete of a guide on how to make a cool album that could possibly exist, but somehow the final product never clicks.

First and foremost, the live instrumentation provided by Adrian Younge does not get anywhere close to its potential. The mix of mellotron choirs, harpsichord and dusty drums all work on a textural level individual, but the full mix ultimately ends up sounding flat and empty. There is a profound lack of bass frequencies on this record, and that leaves most of the tracks without any way of supporting the weight of Ghostface’s rhymes. Beyond the treble heavy instrumentation, the beats also suffer from generally being a solid 10 bpm too slow, only picking up the tempo twice on the whole record. The slow pace of the music makes 12 Reasons To Die a nearly glacial listen, despite the record’s short runtime. Even more odd is how Ghostface never locks into the grooves under him, despite having plenty of experience rhyming over slower beats. The only exceptions are the faster tunes, ‘Blood On The Cobblestones” and “The Sure Shot” and even then, Ghostface is out maneuvered by fellow Wu-Tang heavyweight Inspectah Deck.

This disconnect between the band and the MCs on a performance level is very disheartening when put next to how well the two go together on an aesthetic one. Ghostface’s makes the smart decision of only having a select few guest rappers, each of whom reappear on multiple songs, giving the album a consistent cast to work with. Each rapper plays their part, Cappadonna the giver of concerned advice, Inspectah Deck the friend looking out for his partner, Killa Sin the hungry overachiever, and Ghostface as cocky crime lord turned emotionless force of vengeance. Every few songs RZA will help clarify details, along with a group of gospel singers that warn listeners to beware Ghostface’s wrath. It’s a spooky and well-constructed world, but it’s also a lifeless one. The actual details given about our protagonist’s rise and fall are fairly typical of the style, and if you’ve heard any Mafioso inspired hip-hop in the last 20 years you’ll probably be able to spot the rhymes a mile away. The supernatural elements of the story are never accented to quite the correct degree, further thickening the line between the pulpy comic book image that The Wu-Tang Clan have built for themselves, and the down to earth street style of their lyrical content.

Grade: C-

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