Ghostface Killah has always served as the Wu Tang Clan’s Quentin Tarantino-in-residence. Where his partner-in-rhyme Raekwon’s braggadocio sprang from a hard-boiled Scorsese-style underworld, Ghostface was always more in tune to the technicolor excess that gave Pulp Fiction its DayGlo sheen. The throwback blaxploitation that runs through so much of Ghost’s catalog has realized its most complete manifestation in his latest release, 12 Reasons to Die II.
Teamed for the second time with producer Adrian Younge, Ghostface has resurrected the spirit of crime lord Tony Starks, whose hard knock tale of accession, betrayal and ultimately revenge was first presented to the public on their initial 12 Reasons to Die collaboration. On this sequel, Younge once again blesses Ghost with his unique take on the kind of cinematic '70s soul pioneered by the likes of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, and kept alive in the hearts of OG hustlers ever since. Backed by a full band—and an ear for moody harmonics—Younge provides a neck-snapping canvas of brooding hip-hop funk onto which Ghostface splashes wide-angle panoramas of street life violence on a mythical scale. While Stark’s corporeal form was destroyed on the first 12 Reasons, his spirit carried on after his ashes were pressed into a collection of vinyl LPs. This new adventure finds him guiding the exploits of a rising capo by the name of Lester Kane, played by Raekwon. In order for Kane to sit atop the throne he needs to bring down the Deluca family, the same syndicate responsible for Stark’s death.
Having reigned in the absurdist bent driving his early lyrics, Ghostface’s more direct brand of storytelling gets a lift from the bugged-out elements of Younge’s production. This outing finds the two more in sync than on their first effort, allowing each man to step forward with an increasingly assured delivery. Younge’s beats do more with less: He seems to have fully internalized the minor-key minimalism perfected by the Wu Tang Svengali RZA, who shows up as narrator throughout the album. Joined by a number of his Wu brethren on the mic, Ghostface sounds at home getting lost in the space between Younge’s drums and off-key guitar riffs. Hearing Ghostface rip lyrics within this familiar context is basically rap comfort food for old fans—but at no point on the album does he sound more energized than when he is joined by upstart MC Vince Staples, and the mere presence of a rapper so young poses an unspoken challenge that the veteran clearly relishes. Based on the enthusiastic reception of both 12 Reasons albums, we're all but assured of a third outing someday—and incorporating a new crop of rising rappers could be just the thing to keep Ghost nimble in the midst of his nostalgia. In the meantime, the knotty lyricism and psychedelic rumble of 12 Reasons to Die II should be more than enough to keep Ghostface fans satisfied.
Stream '12 Reasons to Die II' here.