Thursday, July 16, 2015

album review: 'twelve reasons to die ii' by ghostface killah

Let's talk a little bit about sequels. Specifically, the sequels to concept albums, because especially in hip-hop, the album 'sequel' is nothing all that special, and rarely has anything to do with the actual original piece. Now concept albums are rare enough in hip-hop, but sequels to them are even rarer - and for the most part, not exactly an idea of which I'm all that fond. After all, isn't the point behind a great concept album is that it's self-contained, managed to tell the entire story within the confines of the record? Don't you undercut some of the story's original punch with unnecessary sequels?

And in this case, it makes a little less sense than usual. When Ghostface Killah set out to make his exploitation homage record Twelve Reasons To Die with Adrian Younge handling all of the production, I was initially really intrigued, being a long-time fan of 70s exploitation flicks and of Ghostface Killah, a rapper who has dropped more than his fair share of outright classic hip-hop records both with Wu-Tang Clan and on his own. Seriously, go back and relisten to Supreme Clientele and Fishscale, the man is seriously talented as a wordsmith and rapper, with the sort of versatility and intensity you love to see in great rappers. But more than that, Ghostface was a storyteller, and he had a knack for the hyper-stylized tales of crime and debauchery that'd add a lot of colour to this sort of gangsta parable, where Ghostface is betrayed and killed as a crime boss before rising to slay his adversaries in increasingly gruesome fashion.

And yet I wouldn't say Twelve Reasons To Die is in the upper tier of Ghostface records. For one, Adrian Younge production captured a lot of the eerie vibe but always felt a little too slick and lacking in texture to really nail the grimy, blaxploitation vibe. If I'm being honest, I might like Apollo Brown's soul-sample remix a little more, because even though it doesn't have the same operatic theatricality, it feels more authentic to the era or at least to Ghostface's flow. But the larger problem is that there really wasn't room for a sequel - it's a quick, gruesome, self-contained tale that doesn't really have the overloaded plot you would expect out of most exploitation films of the time. So it begged the question what additional stories Ghostface Killah could tell - or maybe he was just hunting for quick name recognition as he continues to flood the market with project after project. But hey, Ghostface is nothing but imaginative, and I was curious where he'd take this - does Twelve Reasons To Die II hold up to the original?

Honestly, I think it might be better. Where the original Twelve Reasons To Die was a solid starting point, the sequel is a bigger, nastier, grittier story that up until the ending easily rose above its origin. And we'll get to that ending - spoiler warning is in effect here, just warning you, because I'm going to need to talk about the ending to explain my biggest issue with the album - but as a whole, I can definitely appreciate and dig Twelve Reasons To Die II, which shifts the action from Italy to New York, brings in a larger set of characters, and gets much more interesting and potent guest verses. I would say it's an improvement across the board but for that ending... but we'll get to it.

Firstly, our cast of characters. Ghostface Killah actually spends the majority of this album dead, a chorus and witness to the bloodbath playing out between the upstart black crime family run by Lester Kane - played by Raekwon - against whatever's left of the DeLuca crime family - and surprising nobody, he and Ghostface have fantastic chemistry. And the other guest rappers all deliver too, with Scarub's low meticulous menace as an paid killer, Vince Staples as a young thug hunting for the Ghostface vinyl when raiding DeLuca complexes with a reckless energy this album definitely uses, Lyrics Born's multisyllabic and strikingly intense narration, and Chino XL as a psychotic killer Kane leaves behind to take out the DeLucas when they attack and who dies as the boss makes his escape. And as before, the RZA acts as a narrator of the entire story, sketching out the gristly rise of Lester Kane's gang, the murder of his family, the return and abduction of Logan DeLuca - the woman who betrayed Ghostface on the last album - and Kane paying a steep price for his bloody revenge. Everyone on this album can and does rap their asses off, to the point where Ghostface's skilled and direct but less technically intricate flow can actually feel a bit overshadowed. 

Now what surprises me is that Ghostface Killah doesn't actually give the DeLucas a rapping voice of their own - like on the original Twelve Reasons To Die, they're a faceless mob presence, which I feel runs to the detriment of the album. For as much as Ghostface and his squad are colourful, defined characters - more than ever on this record - their enemies don't have a face or presence. Which, fine, it might work in a metaphorical sense on the original if Ghostface was presenting the album as an allegory with the mob representing a predominantly white system, but this one features a slightly different character dynamic, more focused on the resurrection and the character of Lester Kane. And for the DeLucas to feel like more of a memorable threat, you'd have thought Ghostface would give them at least a character with a voice - or maybe for Logan, the woman who betrayed Ghostface, it would have been fascinating to call up Rapsody or an unknown female rapper or R&B singer to flesh out that character.

But an area where this album has expanded greatly is in the instrumentation and production. For as much as the operatic swell had its place on Twelve Reasons To Die, adding more potent grit and more diversity to the sound is only an improvement, with more texture on the funkier basslines, jagged, buzzing guitars, oily organs, tinkling pianos that reminded me starkly of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' mid-90s material - unsurprisingly, given one of his albums was called Murder Ballads - and the introduction of warped, spacey whirs to accent the the faux operatic strings and operatic backing vocals. It's a seedier sort of record in terms of sound, which is only a good thing given the change in setting and the increasingly graphic violence. There is a certain uniformity to the sound of this record, drenched in a blend of cartoonish gothic and blaxploitation fun, and I'm still not certain that Adrian Younge has mastered a truly aggressive and punchy hook, but the increased texture, slightly more lo-fi sound, and continued usage of live instrumentation is absolutely stellar.

But I've danced around this long enough: we need to talk about the plot and that ending. It goes like this: Lester Kane's family is murdered, he finds the possessed records and abducts Logan and Ghostface's son, weathers a counterattack from the DeLucas, and then summons Ghostface to exact revenge, with the cost being to surrender his body to Ghostface once the bloody affair is concluded. Okay, so far so good - it plays out in glorious melodramatic fashion, but it completely owns it and it's awesome... and then comes the moment where Lester Kane kills himself to give Ghostface his body... and Ghostface hesitates, a fragment of his lost humanity making him wonder if it's worth it to give up his powers to live as a gangsta again. That's fine, it adds a little complexity, I'm on board. So instead, he chooses to possess his son, kill Logan, and live again as a young man again... after Lester Kane gave his life to give Ghostface a body. That's the problem with narrative-driven concept records like this, you open yourself open to plot holes, and this one is glaring. So, instead of possessing the body of a crime kingpin who gave his life for you, you possess your young son, who you could have raised as an heir, and then you kill Logan in his body - in other words, do exactly what you could have done if you had possessed Lester Kane. This choice really bothers me, because not only does it undercut the emotional dynamic of the previous song 'Resurrection Morning' where Ghostface wonders if he wants to rise above the gangsta life - and then doesn't - but now Kane died for nothing. It smacks of a return to formula and cuts out more interesting ideas - why couldn't Ghostface have possessed Kane, took over the remnants of his empire, adopted his and Logan's son, and potentially set the seeds for a conflict there on the inevitable third album, driven over Ghostface killing the kid's mother? Because unless Ghostface now uses the possessed child to infiltrate the DeLuca family from within, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

In other words, Twelve Reasons To Die II kind of frustrates me - it's got better moments, harder bars, and better production than the original Twelve Reasons To Die, and that's definitely saying something, but that ending irks me and I'm worried that'll be the one part I remember the most. It doesn't help matters that this album feels like a middle chapter, where questions I currently have will be resolved on a later release, but currently are left hanging. But viewed on its own, I guess I can see a certain bloody symmetry in the ending, and even though I think it could have been handled better, it's just enough to knock it up to a very light 8/10. Definitely recommended if you're a fan of old-school hip-hop and Ghostface Killah in particular - and one thing's for sure, he definitely left me anticipating the sequel, so I guess something went right.

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