Between his visceral prose and sheer force of delivery, Ghostface Killah long ago proved himself one of rap’s most vital storytellers, able to spin fully formed tales in huffs of sweaty, play-by-play imagery. Given that gift, it’s surprising that the rapper has never recorded a linear concept album before now. His 10th solo album, Twelve Reasons To Die, marks his first attempt at a sustained album-length narrative, and he commits himself to the record’s revenge fantasy with the same unrelenting intensity of his most overheated verses. In a plot with unintentional echoes of Cleaver, Christopher’s pulpy “Saw meets The Godfather II” screenplay from the final seasons of The Sopranos, Ghostface portrays a merciless mafia soldier who, after falling in a hit ordered by his own family, returns from the grave on a supernatural slaughtering spree.
These themes aren’t new for Ghostface—his dual passions for organized crime and disorganized mayhem have been documented dozens of times over—but the backdrop is. Though Wu-Tang figurehead RZA executive-produced Twelve Reasons and narrates several of its songs, he handed the production reins to Adrian Younge, a composer who shares his cinematic sensibilities but executes them on a greater scale than RZA ever could. The result is a grandiose extrapolation of Wu-Tang’s signature sound, with a live drummer filling in for static loops and full string and horn sections supplanting RZA’s usual dusty samples. Where RZA’s productions are raw and impulsive, Younge’s widescreen reinterpretations of them are lush and considered, evoking Ennio Morricone’s film scores not only in their inventive campiness but also their sweeping scope and exquisite attention to detail.
Following his smart score for the 2009 blaxploitation homage Black Dynamite and this year’s joint effort with Delphonics singer William Hart, Adrian Younge Presents The Delphonics, Twelve Reasons is Younge’s first foray into rap, but he takes to the genre like an old pro. Without removing Ghostface from his sweet spot, he’s built a lavish new playground for the rapper to indulge his harried depictions of slit throats, severed tongues, and bullet-torn flesh. In an era where it increasingly seems like rap albums are being rendered obsolete by mixtapes, this tightly focused, wildly entertaining collaboration between two master craftsmen is a testament to how powerful the form can still be.