Many years back, Roots drummer ?uestlove posted on the Okayplayer message board that he’d tipped Ghostface Killah off to live funk band Breakestra; because he “thought a band of that level would be PERFECT for ghost to go to that next level.” Sadly the collaboration never manifested, but there’s no doubt that something within Ghostface’s delivery and demeanour suits the energy of a live band. Twelve Reasons to Die offers a tantalising glimpse of why this is the case.
Younge’s production incorporates a diverse range of live instrumentation, steeped in funk and soul, but with knowing winks to the compositions of Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. This is particularly fitting as the album comes with its own filmic narrative of a wronged Mob enforcer (Tony Starks) murdered by his crime bosses, only to return from the dead to seek revenge. The music does a powerful job of evoking film soundtracks; the spaghetti Western guitar and rumbling timpani drums on Enemies All Around Me could have come straight from a Tarantino flick. In some ways this is the fulfilment of the Wu Tang’s original blueprint: melodramatic street raps accompanied by a sweeping compositional vision. It should be no great surprise that the RZA acted as executive producer, as well as providing some suitably po-faced narration throughout the album.
Ghostface himself is in fine voice for the most part, though lyrically he drifts to the sluggish side. This is far from the ultra-compressed abstract imagery that defined Supreme Clientele, and even defaults on the narrative flair that assured Fishscale its late classic status. While the lyrics serve both the tone and the form, they are too direct and fall flat when compared to something as adept as Shakey Dog or Mighty Healthy. More curious still is the absence of Raekwon, Ghostface’s long-time sparring partner and musical foil. The Wu is well represented by Inspectah Deck, but it’s not a substitute for Raekwon’s gruff admonishments.
The military trot of the snare in The Rise of the Ghostface Killah, combined with the fanfare combo of bells and trumpets, leaves the listener wanting the lyrical punch to match. It never quite manifests, and instead Ghostface stays in a comfortable mid-gear.
Placing aside these minor gripes, it is worth remembering that Ghostface on an off-day still sounds better than most of his contemporaries.
For all its minor faults, Twelve Reasons to Die retains some major successes, not least Younge’s accomplished musical accompaniments. Whatever else ?uestlove may have had in mind, at least he can be content that Ghostface continues to push himself into something resembling a new territory.
Words: Andrew Spragg