You have to admire Ghostface Killah. Despite the occasional misstep, his career has largely consisted of top quality albums that embody the better qualities of the Wu-Tang dynasty. Recent collaborations have seen him accompanied by live instrumentation, most notably under the supervision of Adrian Younge for 12 Reasons to Die. Canadian jazz group BADBADNOTGOOD have gained attention for their remix work and collaborations with the likes of JJ DOOM and Earl Sweatshirt. On Sour Soul they provide bass-heavy, melodic production that enables Ghostface to showcase his consistently agile and tough vocal style.
It is important, however, not to think of Sour Soul just as a platform for the rapper. BBNG are not solely present to provide instrumental wallpaper; nowhere is this more noticeable than on Ray Gun. Ghostface and DOOM exchange flighty, solid verses, before the song dips into a gleefully fearsome arrangement of strings and brass to deliver a wonderful coda. For the large part, Sour Soul has an airy swing to it, recalling West Coast soul and jazz production. Nuggets of Wisdom, with its interplay between the bass and vibraphone, is a stone’s throw from David Axelrod, and it is a credit to BBNG that they are able to pull off these kind of reverent homages without it smacking of pastiche.
For the large part, Sour Soul has an airy swing to it, recalling West Coast soul and jazz production.
It is easy to be sceptical of a certain revivalist spirit that exists in hip-hop production, after all funk, jazz and soul of certain eras has been subject to a strip-mining operation by producers for the best part of 30 years now. However, BBNG prove two things with Sour Soul. Firstly, that there remains a symbiotic relationship between the hard-to-define groove encoded in such music and the rappers who deliver over it. Secondly, that there is still ripe potential in pushing its various permutations, particularly through the use of live instrumentation. The ringing guitar chords of Gunshowers give both Ghostface and guest Elzhi a swaggering intent, especially Ghostface who sets his syllables bouncing off the beat with a vigour that recalls his earliest triumphs.
The variation in pacing and tone on Sour Soul is one the album’s real strengths. The more mellow moments, such as Tone’s Rap or Food, provide a subtlety often lost amongst the bombast of hip-hop records. As he’s matured, one of Ghostface’s real strengths has been the ability to pitch his delivery to suit the music he is rapping over. Contrast it with Danny Brown’s guest spot on Six Degrees, where he endearingly fails to find a footing for his nasal yelp, and you come to appreciate the technical subtleties of Ghostface’s flow.
Coming in at a little over 30 minutes, Sour Soul is an impressively concise statement. Ghostface’s career to date suggests it is unlikely to gain the audience it deserves, but this shouldn’t deter a curious listener. In fact it should compel them. BADBADNOTGOOD and Ghostface Killah have delivered a musically mature and intelligent album that deserves to find an appreciative audience.
Words: Andrew Spragg