It’s been about two decades since Ghostface Killah delivered the opening verse on the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic debut album. The world caught the blast of a hype verse, and RZA’a hip-hop/branding juggernaut was launched. Considering RZA’a ingenuous conceptualizing, it’s actually rather surprising that Wu-Tang lore has gone so underdeveloped. Until now, we’ve never heard a fully fleshed-out origin-story for any Wu-Tang member, which is surprising. The world of the Wu-Tang Clan, a world as insular and complex as Middle Earth or the Star Trek universe, is a rough neighborhood, built on low-budget 1970s genre films (Shaw Brothers kung-fu in particular), Five-Percent Nation terminology and theology, and a series of interconnected samples, slang and catchphrases that could fill a glossary. Comic books are an ingredient, too, particularly with Ghostface, whose debut solo album was a titled with a Marvel Comics reference that also provided his alternate moniker. Origin stories are the most well-known part of any superhero’s (or supervillian’s) mythology, and it seems inevitable that Ghostface would reveal his eventually. (I don’t want to get bogged down in making a distinction between the persona and the human being behind it, or where one ends and the other begins. That’s between Ghostface and either his god, his therapist or his lawyers.)
Here’s the paperback summary: The Ghostface Killah was once an ambitious mobster named Tony Starks before he was betrayed and murdered in a record-pressing plant by the 12 Delucas, who pressed his remains into twelve vinyl records. Written into those grooves was a seething specter of vengeance. The rest, as you can imagine, is a saga haunted by the spirit of those 1970s revenge flicks that made a young Quentin Tarantino say “I want to make one of THOSE! That would be awesome!”
This tale unfolds in 12 Reasons to Die, a collaboration with Adrian Younge. Previously known best for his uncanny blaxploitation score for the uncanny blaxploitation homage Black Dynamite (also known as the movie in the #1 spot on your need-to-see-it list), Younge conceived this project, recording the score with his (one-man?) band (on vintage reel-to-reels, no less!) and sent a script to Ghostface detailing which segments of the story take place in which songs. This record feels like a giddy passion project born out of a that-would-be-awesome moment. “I should produce a record for Ghostface Killah that tells his supernatural origin story! That would be awesome!”
It is awesome, by the way. Younge’s retro-fresh instrumentation is grindhouse cinematic and rare-groove nostalgic. Ennio Morricone and David Axelrod are the most obvious reference points. His sonic palette emphasizes ominous pianos, gloomy organs and stinging fuzz-guitars, with sprinklings of mellotron, strings, horns and harpsichord. “I Declare War” utilizes the wordless singing of a soprano, evoking Once Upon a Time in the West. All the while, live drums boom and bap in charging four-on-the-bloodstained-cement-floor patterns. The arrangements shift from verse to verse, and they’re colorful enough on their own to make the instrumentals disc a worthy listen. I haven’t heard another hip-hop album that sounds quite like this one.
Ghostface turns in a solid performance here, although it seems like focusing on one coherent narrative creates something of a challenge. There really isn’t time here for tangents or non-sequiturs, and you won’t hear much of the cleverness, wordplay or emotional resonance Ghost is capable of delivering. You could call these lyrics “workmanlike”. The storytelling is pretty literal, and in the coffee-table book of Ghostface Killah’s most memorable lines, nothing will come from 12 Reasons to Die. If some of the gut-bursting emotional resonance and renegade poetry wordplay of, say, Ironman is lacking here, it’s a fair trade for such a focused narrative. Anyway, Mr. Killah’s actual performance is as urgent and powerful as ever. He’s always had an intense theatricality to him, and that’s exactly what a project like this needs.
A comic book is being published concurrently with the album, and Apollo Brown produced a remix called 12 Reasons to Die: The Brown Tape (it’s really good, although the sample-based beats he employs are less-than-unique accompaniment for Ghost, compared to Younge’s retro score). This is the kind of immersive project you can really spend some time with.
The supporting cast (Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Cappadonna) would normally be considered Wu-Tang B-listers, but they’re uniformly good here. It’s strange that Raekwon doesn’t make an appearance, but maybe he’s waiting in the wings for an Adrian Younge-produced Mafioso rap-opera of his own. That would be awesome.