Dennis Coles, better known as critically-acclaimed rap behemoth Ghostface Killah, has been around the block a bit. First bursting on the scene as the masked man of mafiosi rap with hip-hop super-crew Wu-Tang Clan in 1992, Ghost became one of the only rappers from the collective to forge a (relatively) successful solo career releasing a plethora of collabos and compilations and ten solo albums with at least two of them reaching near classic status: turn-of-the-century sophomore effort “Supreme Clientele” and the underrated crack-rap opus “Fishcale”.
His eleventh LP, “Twelve Reasons to Die”, sees the forty-two year old rapper in a period of transition. Last album, a joint effort with D-Block alum Styles P, ingeniously titled “Wu-Block”, was a solid if unspectacular release; one that was met by crickets from critics and similarly from fans: selling 8,600 copies in the first week, 4,200 the next. Those numbers may not sound like much, even for a relatively low-key release, and that's because they're not. Taking to interviews to announce that he's left Def Jam and no stranger to financial trouble (rumours abound that he's barely made a penny of the veritable shit-load of releases he's made (if you pardon the pun) because of issues like sample clearance prices and nefarious labels owing him royalties) it's a far cry from the young kid from Staten who used to rock a bedazzled golden eagle on his wrist.
“Twelve Reasons to Die” is, by anyone's estimation, quite a risk. A horror-western concept album created with collaborator, “Black Dynamite” scorer Adrian Younge and inspired by cult cowboy-flick composer Ennio Morricone, the deluxe edition of the physical album is lavishly presented: complete with graphic novel, copies of the album on CD, a blood-red-and-clear colour-way vinyl and a hipster-appeasing cassette-only remix of the entire album from Mello Music's Apollo Brown among a fuck load more. If you're counting: that'd likely be recoupable by your Jays, Drakes and Kanyes but for an artist who hasn't had a charting single since 2006 – even one as acclaimed as one of the genre's greatest exports – that's a bit of a gamble. Hopefully it's one that pays off, as an album as lovingly crafted as this deserves an audience, even if it isn't quite Ghostfake Killah at his best.
The concept of a “concept album” is pretty invalid for the man self-dubbed as “Tony Starks”. A scattershot approach to narrative that has historically done him pretty well is showcased immediately on album opener “Beware of the Stare” where the horror motif is shaken for further well-worn tales of crack sales and Ghost detailing ways in which he'll kidnap and murder you. If that sounds trite, it's not: Ghost is a master craftsman of words, bending meanings around a flow so slippery that you can barely keep your ear on it, leaving you with plenty of songs that reward multiple listens (subsequent attempts to purchase myself a “bulletproof robe” have, as yet, proven unfruitful).
“Rise Of The Black Suits” sees Starks flow over a organ-sample and eery keys about made men, a recurring theme in pretty much all of the Wu solo work. References to the mafia are littered throughout in a theme that dates the music instantly given the syndicates' recent relative anonymity, but possibly intentionally so: the entire release lives under a layer of dust, a by-gone relic from a not-so-distant-past. And while Ghostface's voice has aged a little over time, brilliantly, fellow ex-Wu-er Masta Killa hasn't seemed to age a jot: his quick cameo on “I Declare War” - a song sporting a stomping drum-beat and chopped-up falsetto wail – seems beamed right out of 1995.
Midpoint slow-burner “Enemies All Around You” featuring William Hart of pioneering Philly soul group The Delfonics finally shows us that Morriocone influence but is a bit of a non-starter, whereas the proceeding track “An Unexpected Call (The Set-Up)” featuring Inspectah Deck sees the album find its gear once more as Ghost and Deck work a tight story of a femme fatale setting up our poor protag. It's a great cut but as the album progresses you start to notice how little Ghostface Killah is actually featured on his own album (barely forty-five seconds worth on this track) and how he often seems a little distant. Could one of the undisputed greatest be losing his grip? You could argue for it until Ghostface's “demise” is met towards the back end of the album and his “return” is pretty literal: “The Rise of Ghostface Killah” sees our hero rise from the ashes (the same ashes that the RZA claims the evil DeLucas' had pressed into twelve vinyl records over a narration that works like a ghetto Vincent Price) and spit with a venom and vernacular conspicuously absent from a few of the albums earlier songs (“The almighty rise of the murderous Ghostface/ Bodies dropped in aisles, left for the cold-case/ Columbian neckties from a black Gambino/ Bodies get dumped in a black El Camino”) - everything from then feels quicker, tighter, sharper.
“Murder Spree” is an especially dark account of, well, a murder spree with Ghost, Killa & Deck going into gleefully graphic detail on each dead body whereas “The Sure Shot” starts with a jazzy breakbeat before hitting slow-mo as the story reaches its climax with Ghost still revelling in the little things (like saying his “meat cleaver cut fingertips like rip-tips”).
As a whole, “Twelve Reasons to Die” is a little patchy. The “concept” is largely redundant given the resemblance of this story to Ghost's usual patter and his penchant for non-sequitur, whereas the “horror” elements are all but non-existent barring RZA's enjoyably hammy voiceover but the album does see Ghostface sounding more involved that he has in a while and that alone is enough.
Always a colourful character, it's still fun to see him seemingly making shit up as he goes along with a New York rasp that defies imitation (besides Action Bronson ripping him off wholesale...) and given the plethora of rappers at this moment who all sound the same, it's always good to hear from the G.O.D.