Ghostface Killah “12 Ways to Die”

Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge

Twelve Reasons to Die

[Wax Poetics; 2013]

Rating: 8.8

Rap music lends its self naturally to the narrative form, so it’s no wonder that many modern MCs have created conceptual albums focused around an overlying story.  The problem is that these attempts at concept are usually failures in terms of following the traditional story arc.  Tyler the Creator’s psychiatry session Goblin was a haphazard, sloppy mess; Kanye West’s mental breakdown on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was entertaining but a little bit too self-absorbed (go figure), and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city lacked any sense of character development or maturation. Maybe they could all learn a thing or too about storytelling from the legendary raconteur Ghostface Killah with his 2013 masterpiece Twelve Reasons to Die.

While the three artists mentioned approached their concept albums from an autobiographical mindset, Twelve Reasons to Die is a daring piece of fiction.  Ghostface has always been known to spin a yarn, especially on the Scarface-esque Fishscale, but never has he executed his storytelling in such a linear, focused fashion.  Each track clocks in around three minutes, mini-vignettes that serve as the next chapter in the story of Tony Starks and his life as an enforcer for the DeLuca crime family.Stark builds a reputation with the family, moves up in the ranks, and decides to split off and start his own crime syndicate.  Unfortunately, Starks is wooed by a vixen named Carmella on “The Center of Attraction,” a stunning love song that quickly turns sour when Stark discovers she set him up, and so distracted by love, he’s killed by the DeLucas.

“The Center of Attraction” (2013’s “Love is a Battlefield”):

In what sounds like a storyline straight from a Todd McFarlane comic book, Stark’s remains are then pressed into twelve vinyl records for each member of the family, unbeknownst to them that the playing of said records would resurrect his vengeful ghost. Thus begins the 2nd half of the album, a ruthless blood fest of Kill Bill proportions. The album remains focused on the story from start to finish, even at a risk of not having a radio-friendly single because it would distract from the overall narrative (you won’t find any songs about swimming pools filled with alcoholic beverages).

Ghostface’s lyrics reveal the storyline, but Adrian Younge’s production paints the setting.  Younge’s dabbling in cinema is evident throughout the album with a mixture of Italian film music, blaxpoitation swerve, and spaghetti western dramatics.  Add a hint of 60s psychedelic soul and 70s frenetic funk and you have the auditory equivalent of Django Unchained. My references to Tarantino films is no coincidence.  It’s hard to listen to Younge’s nuanced mixture of retro film staples without imagining Mr. Blonde cruising to the “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies,” Beatrix Kiddo rising from her grave to exact revenge, and Django riding into the sunset. Younge never steers clear of this refined 70s sound, adding even more focus to the movie playing out in your mind.

Opening track “Beware of the Stare” sets the scene from the get go:

In a time where hip-hop has become more about the hit single that can be downloaded for 99 cents on iTunes, Twelve Ways to Die is old school in its resistance to the norm. It is an album that asks the listener to actually listen to each track, analyze each story element, embark on an epic journey, not simply a good beat to play in the background of your house party.

My only complaint with the album would be that you finish it wanting more.  The second half of the album is a bloody blur of hilarious deaths, but it also feels a bit rushed through unlike the first half of the album. I would have preferred to hear a methodical gunning down of each Deluca, 12-tracks in all.   With sevens songs prior to the resurrection of Tony Stark, I may be asking for too much with 12 more songs. I just wish they’d given this magnum opus its due.

Sure, there are reports of a series of graphic novels coming out based on the album, but I want something even more grandiose. In a perfect world, the second half of the album would have been released on 12 separate 7-inch albums, one for each member of the Deluca family (also, going with the concept of his soul captured within each). In fact, I’d take it a step further with a special edition set featuring Ghostface’s actual blood within the vinyl like the Flaming Lips recently did.  I know this is asking a bit much for a small label like Wax Poetics, but an album like Twelve Ways to Die deserves the royal treatment.

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