RZA explored kung-fu and 19th century China with the ambitious but messy The Man With The Iron Fists, but now it’s Ghostface Killah’s turn to bend genres. Thankfully, Ghostface is far more successful than RZA, in large part because he’s simply more subdued. That is, without the distraction of musical or filmic guest stars and visually glorified violence, Ghostface subtly blends old school Wu-Tang Clan with trip-hop beats and Spaghetti Western instrumentals to create Twelve Reasons To Die, an awesomely badass and cohesive musical adaptation of the comic book of the same name.
Cinematic and dramatic while still maintaining a semblance of grounding, Twelve Reasons To Die is produced by 2013 busybody Adrian Younge who, earlier this year, mostly successfully helped make The Delfonics‘ sound contemporary. Here, he presents Ghostface Killah’s universe as one that’s modern and stylized to the point where the former Wu-Tang pioneer might even attract young Quentin Tarantino (or Django Unchained) fans. The album, which will also be released in conjunction with instrumentals and a six issue comic book series (!), is a unique entry in Ghostface’s hall of fame catalogue. Ten studio albums into his solo career, Ghostface has resisted what’s trendy by succeeding in hip hop the old-fashioned way: by rapping really, really well.
Most notably like Ghostface’s stone cold classic Supreme Clientele (and other Ghostface releases), Twelve Reasons To Die is based around narrator/main character/alias Tony Starks, played by Ghostface himself. Whereas in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Tony Starks wasn’t a name that referenced or bore similarities to any currently fashionable aspect of pop culture, in 2013, the same kids who are watching Django likely enjoyed Iron Man or The Avengers. Ghostface, then, is smart to subtly incorporate narrator Starks into the overall story of Twelve Reasons To Die rather than make him a distracting and obviously main focal point, like his Wu-Tang clansman RZA did with famous actors and musicians.
Also like Supreme Clientele, Twelve Reasons To Die doesn’t have a weak track, even if the album as a whole may not reach the same classic status as Clientele, The Pretty Toney Album, Fishscale, and even Apollo Kids. The reason Twelve Reasons To Die isn’t “classic” is not Ghostface’s fault… or maybe it is, depending on how you look at it. In the context of his legendary career, a move and album like Twelve Reasons To Die almost feels expected. You know it’s going to be quality, and it doesn’t disappoint, but (much like how Radiohead fans felt about The King Of Limbs) it also doesn’t change the game.
That’s not to say it’s not risky – Wu-Tang and its affiliated members’ brand of hip-hop has always stood its ground in the face of its less intelligent, but more trendy foes, and for the most part, succeeded. Twelve Reasons To Die doesn’t change Ghostface’s game. To criticize Twelve Reasons To Die for not exceeding expectations is criminally unfair; it just prevents the album from truly standing out on the basis of its pure quality (it does stand out for traversing genres). While an album like The Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part Two was a pleasant surprise from a great hip hop collective that hadn’t been great for a long, long time, Twelve Reasons To Die follows 2010’s excellent Apollo Kids. It’s not “classic” enough to win the complete and utter praise of the most jaded hip hop listener.
But if your only problem is making new music that’s not “classic” enough, you know you’re one of the greatest living rappers, one of the greatest rappers that ever lived. Or one of the many members of the Wu-Tang Clan.