A grisly, retro-fitted, blood-spattered, cinematic Tarantino pastiche for music nerds and hip-hop heads everywhere, Ghostface Killah’s enthralling Twelve Reasons to Die isn’t merely the emcee’s finest hour since 2006’s career-high Fishscale; it’s also, assuming it gets the respect it deserves, poised to be hip-hop’s most prominent excursion into the grindhouse, and the true breakthrough of producer Adrian Younge.
Or perhaps “composer” is the better word. Twelve Reasons to Die is the result of a miraculous and rare synergy between sound and vision; it’s such a meticulously crafted record that it almost sounds like a soundtrack, or even hip-hop’s own version of the rock opera. Younge’s compositions rise and fall in perfect sync with Ghostface’s lyrical content, which lays out an elaborate, violent revenge fantasy on the part of Ghost’s alter ego, Tony Starks. At this stage in his career, Ghost is still a remarkably nasty emcee; he’s long been lauded for his unique, winding flow, and his animated, eloquently melodramatic delivery, but it’s nice to see that he can still back it up with lyrical content.
Lyrical content which never quite excites as much as it used to, mind you; Ghost isn’t lazy here by any means, but his narratives are a little more straightforward than we’re used to, “straightforward” here, of course, being a relative term that doesn’t mean a thing when stacked up next to any of his peers. The prose is never quite as in-the-moment provocative as Fishscale‘s stunning “Shakey Dog”, for example, the gold standard for any modern self-respecting practitioner of the gritty street narrative; it’s never quite as shockingly emotional as The Big Doe Rehab‘s bone-chilling “Walk Around”. But it doesn’t need to be; the great thing about Twelve Reasons to Die is the remarkable mood it fosters. It’s the ineffable cool of blaxsploitation, welded to the descriptive, evocative inevitability of the revenge caper.
And, quite frankly, even if Ghostface didn’t acquit himself well here, Mr. Younge would have done all the legwork for him. What Younge does here is invaluable; crisp live drums (no 808 knock here, kiddos), fuzzed-out guitars, minor-key piano motifs and dramatic organ flourishes, Morricone strings. Twelve Reasons to Die almost sounds like the kind of thing Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi’s Rome should have been; a sweeping cinematic gesture that encapsulates all the drama and intrigue that a project like this implies. That album wasn’t looking to channel grindhouse horror, Mafioso malevolence, or gruesome giallo movies, it’s important to note; but Twelve Reasons to Die pops in a way that befits its elements. Each snare rattles the chest, each eerie organ trill ups the tension — for those of us that savor the intersection of music and suspense, Twelve Reasons is an absolute ringer.
The record’s immaculate structure just demands replay value. Twelve Reasons can be appreciated just fine for its immersive musical vibes — one could, in theory, let the story remain window dressing and still enjoy it — but as an experience, and with a Greek chorus that includes RZA and William Hart of The Delfonics (who contributes a gloriously ghostly refrain to album highlight “Enemies All Around Me”), it’s best taken as a whole. Just when you thought Ghost had settled into a groove (not mediocrity, mind you, as the last few Ghostface albums suffered only in comparison to his best work — dude’s consistency deserves a medal), he goes and drops another classic. Twelve Reasons to Die is an early contender for hip-hop record of the year; surrender yourself to it appropriately.