To immerse oneself in Twelve Reasons to Die is to go swimming in a pool of pulp entertainment so deep and so intoxicating that it’s probably best to fall back on producer and composer Adrian Younge’s own words to describe it:
Basically this is a score to a vintage, Italian horror film. Obviously a full vintage horror film that takes place in 1968… So in my head I pictured all this artwork. All this old [Dario Argento] type artwork and I wanted it to be something that Morricone could have scored back then. And then I wanted to pull in all of that Morricone sentiment. All of that old, American soul sentiment. And then I wanted to kind of fabricate that in a way that The RZA would have put the album together had he been a producer in the late 60’s.
Younge’s breathless excitement for the project is palpable enough to animate those dead words taxidermied across your screen above. That same excitement animates every second of Twelve Reasons, an album that is at once a blaxploitation shocker cutting a violent swath through an oppressive white hierarchy, a gangster epic chronicling the rise and fall of a criminal kingpin, a campy superhero origin myth, a grisly EC Comics horror story, and a blood-soaked Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy.
At this point in his career, Ghostface could be forgiven for just sticking with what works. After all, the last time he tried to really shake things up, it didn’t exactly meet with thunderous applause. And in a sense, Twelve Reasons continues to play to the emcee’s strengths. Ghost gets to don all his favorite guises: the street-hardened criminal mastermind, the spurned lover, the madcap sadist, the covert geek hiding his nerdiness under a generous coat of swagger. And Younge’s compositions, while uncommonly rich and cinematic, still draw on the same classic funk and soul music that have been the backbone of The RZA’s sampled beats for years.
Yet the album represents a total upset of Ghost’s creative process, putting the record’s narrative arc at the forefront and constructing the music and lyrics around that. The result is a laser-focused concept album centered around Tony “Black Tone” Starks (natch), a mafia boss who betrays the dreaded DeLuca family and forms his own crime syndicate. While the gang war that ensues does nothing to impede Starks’ meteoric rise to power, The DeLucas exploit his Achilles’ heel through the wiles of a duplicitous woman. Betrayed, Starks is murdered and his body melted down into a vat of acetate and pressed into 12 vinyl records, one for each of the heads of the family. But, of course, the gift has unforeseen consequences, because when the record is played, it unleashes the spirit of the dead man, who seeks bloody vengeance from his murderers as the immortal Ghostface Killah.
As pulp premises go, it’s a regular carton of orange juice, but the material achieves a kind of grandeur, thanks in no small part to Younge’s breathtaking compositions. Younge structures his score in such a way that it accents the natural rising and falling motions of the plot, ratcheting up the energy for violent set pieces like “Blood on the Cobblestones,” reigning it back in to maximize the tension for moodier material like on Starks’ paranoid rant on “Enemies All Around Me,” and swinging for the goddamn bleachers on the climactic “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah,” which opens with an epic female a cappella vocal harmony. It’s masterful mood music that you can drop a sick rhyme to.
Of course, Mr. GFK himself brings his A-game throughout Twelve Reasons, as do his fellow Clansmen and the various Wu-Disciples who fill out the cast of characters, including executive producer RZA, who’s interstitial narration helps to tie narrative together and lends the album an eerie campfire-story vibe. Other standouts include Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killah, and Killa Sin’s turns as Starks’ lieutenants and fan-servicing ODB sample on “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah.” But Ghostface is the star of this show, delivering the kind of frantic, jagged-nerve verses that have made him one of the most beloved of Wu Tang’s rap assassins. His furious back-and-forth with Cappadonna on “Center of Attraction” is classic Ghost, dripping with nervous energy and insecurity. The final stretch of the album gives him ample space to flex his lyrical muscle, laying out all the gruesome details of his unholy retribution (Some personal favorites: “Take my life/ I’ll take everyone you love/ Have your kids thrown out of a plane/ ‘Look up, Cuz!’”and “Blow your lungs out/ I see you been smokin’ for years”).
Twelve Reasons to Die delivers spectacularly on its promise. Ghostface and Younge’s filmic vision comes together with great aplomb, and yields one of the bloodiest, most ambitious, and straight-up funnest hip-hop albums of 2013. Now if only Ghost would get cracking on that collab with Doom…