In the manner of sporadic fellow travelers Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch, the diasporic endurance of the Wu-Tang Clan represents a real coup for nerd culture. Ghostface Killah, gangster persona and all, is no exception. His latest album, Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons to Die, recounts the spaghetti-western origin myth of Ghostface’s longtime alter ego Tony Starks, who, we now learn for the first time, rose to prominence as a cocaine-rich foot soldier in the Deluca mafia super-syndicate. Soon, Tony finds himself backstabbed, and the murderous Deluca family presses his perforated corpse into 12 records. Little do they realize that Ghostface—being, you know, Ghostface—will rise again.
Call Twelve Reasons to Die a concept album (there’s even a companion comic book!), but it’s best to consider it a sort of one-off graphic novel: It’s all about scenes, and Ghostface keeps the frames moving as fast and vivid as ever. The rapper tends to benefit from the restraint of a concept (however ersatz that concept may be), and the transubstantiation-via-vinyl—indeed the entire fictional conceit—allows Ghostface to re-enter a full-on gangsterism that he’s more or less disavowed on latter-day albums. Revenge is the notional theme, but what matters is the variations, as he weighs questions of loyalty (whether he’s ignoring the advice of his best friends or fantasizing about his wife while masturbating in prison) and unleashes his percussive flow over live drums, bass, and keys. Even as producer Adrian Younge provides zany arrangements, full of the Clan’s campy cultural conjunctions (blaxploitation meets noir meets spaghetti western meets samurai flick), it’s the backbeat that leads, and Ghostface rhyming over an honest-to-God drumkit remains one of the more dependable partnerships in hip-hop.
As noted, Ghost also remains a fucking weirdo. On “Murder Spree,” for example, he considers “six million ways to die,” some of them surprising and inventive. At the same time, he and executive producer RZA allow (or encourage) Younge’s inclusion of a recurring choir, dangerously reminiscent of Peter Schickele’s parodic cantatas, that offers sparse and not terribly well-written exposition. Eclectic textures almost suggest that the album is an answer to RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists: Blaxploitation horns give way to brief noir orchestrations, and these to the half-hollow-body, heavy-tremolo guitars of a Tarantino soundtrack. The schmaltz of these touches would feel less distracting if Ghost were actually writing some kind of saga. Instead, he offers a series of interdependent shorts, nearly all of them good enough to fill sparser arrangements. It feels suspiciously as though Tarantino’s aesthetics of overenthusiasm are becoming an ever-greater influence on the Clan—or at least on RZA.
Still, the most intriguing element of this whole setup is that, for all its jumpy distractions, the music succeeds on the strength of its rhythm section. Twelve Reasons to Die is Younge’s first time producing a hip-hop album, but he also wrote and produced a new Delfonics album earlier this year, and the old-school attack of “Blood on the Cobblestones” and “Rise of the Black Suits” underpins superlative verses from Ghost as the bassist plays like Duck Dunn after too much of Ghost’s famous product. Consider “Apollo Kids” off 2000’s Supreme Clientele, with its Solomon Burke-style inflections, plus so many other vintage soul-based Ghostface B-sides, and you’ll recognize that while Method Man and Red were often content to ride above-average synthetic beats, Ghostface is the Wu-Tang member most interested in his own rhythmic origins. He’ll never be Kanye because, even at his campiest, Ghost can’t entirely extricate himself from the musical vocabulary of R&B; if he could, he would cease to be Ghostface Killah, and RZA has wisely followed the rapper on various excursions without upending this central arrangement.
A soul polymath, Younge proves a handy symbol for the connective tissue between Ghost and ’60s R&B. The most arresting of Twelve Reasons to Die’s many pleasures is how out of time the album feels: Its pointed narrative distance from straight-faced gangster rap is very 2013, but the simple virtuosity of the small moments smacks of eras in both rap and soul that passed long before Ghost ever stepped to a mic. A short album, with 12 tracks clocking in at just over 39 minutes, Twelve Reasons to Die inverts the maximalist production with which Jigga, Kanye, Big Boi, et al. have plied listeners in recent years. The live band is enough to buoy Ghost’s fictions, and the fictions, in turn, unfold with a moralism whose kitsch goofiness and general ultra-violence battle each other for supremacy. The goofiness may win, but the fight is worth watching.