Ghostface Killah is in the middle of a furious creative outburst, and though for simplicity’s sake this review is nominally about Sour Soul,* it is necessary to examine Ghostface’s most recent collaboration in relation to his recent output. It is tempting to lump together Twelve Reasons to Die, 36 Seasons, and Sour Soul as a trilogy, but considering that Twelve Reasons will have an official sequel of its own that would be a mistake. Despite the fact that there is no official connective thread between them, this trio of albums do share a similar commitment to musical exploration of older genres that provide fertile ground for Ghostface’s preferred lyrical themes. Twelve Reasons to Die, one of our favorite albums from 2013 (and an honorable mention on our best-of list), remains the best of the group, but Sour Soul comes close to reaching its peak and helps overcome some of the weakness of its immediate predecessor.
Adrian Younge’s spaghetti western/Italian horror-influenced production provided the perfect template for Ghostface on Twelve Reasons; the music contained the right amount of sinister ambiance to complement Ghostface’s pulpy tale of the revenge sought by a gangster spirit, a storyline as bizarre as it was captivating. Younge’s use of vibrato guitars, jazzy organ flourishes, and expertly arranged strings all contributed to an enthralling soundtrack in its own right that perfectly evoke a 70’s-era noir film, with anachronistic touches like expertly deployed turntables helping provide a refreshing twist. Younge was able to match the changing moods dictated by the demands of the plot without ever overpowering the rappers. Ghostface shares the load mainly with fellow Wu-Tang Clan members who drop in to flesh out additional characters, with Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck in particular supplying memorable guest verses. The success of all these elements coming together set up high expectations when the 36 Seasons and Sour Soul projects were announced.
With 36 Seasons, Ghostface kept up the throwback vibe, but opted for a more old-school R&B feel with the help of backing group The Revelations. While the combination initially seems promising, unfortunately the album loses steam by the end. Unlike Twelve Reasons, Ghostface is unable to keep the listener absorbed throughout the record with the storyline of Tony Stark’s return after nine years away from home. The instrumentals on their own are often a bright spot, and the various interludes are well done, but too often 36 Seasons seems to drift along instead of settling into a true groove. At several points Ghostface seems to drop out of the picture entirely, as guest verses make up an outsize presence on the record, leaving the listener to assume that there simply was not as much enthusiasm for this particular release.
Sour Soul ends up being somewhat of a mix of styles between the two previous albums, with BADBADNOTGOOD adopting elements of funk and R&B along with some of the more outlandish aspects of Younge’s work, most notably the vibrato guitar lines. There is a sense of fun and adventurous on this record that was absent on 36 Seasons, which helps keep the listener fully immersed into the music. Though the album suffers from the weakness of its underlying storyline like its predecessor, BADBADNOTGOOD provides enough variety to overcome this flaw, and shifts between a wide variety of genres with ease. There are fewer guest spots on Sour Soul, but each emcee not only provides a strong presence but is helped by the fact that none of them are in Ghostface’s usual stable–they range from MF DOOM, Elzhi, to Danny Brown, the last of whom provided a smile to my face by dropping a reference to Toccara in 2015, even if his muppet-like style can be grating.
Ghostface simply sounds more engaged with Sour Soul, as if he enjoys the challenge of BADBADNOTGOOD and their ability to go in unexpected directions mid-song; even when Ghostface is covering tired cliches, he’s able to do so in an entertaining manner, as in the pimp’s lament “Tone’s Rap”. Perhaps the best example of the difference between 36 Seasons and Sour Soul is that on the former he merely repeats the classic Wu-Tang line “cash rules everything around me” on “Double Cross”, while in the latter he plays with the callback a bit, declaring “money is the root to all evil, that cash rule” on “Food”. Even though Sour Soul flies by too quickly at a little over a half hour, it ends up being a more satisfying experience because it packs a greater creative punch. Hopefully Twelve Reasons to Die II will do more of the same.
*It ended up being too difficult a task to come up with a title that incorporated all three albums and did not create a formatting nightmare, but hopefully the greater context provides a more helpful review