In the six years since Ghostface’s last critical smash, Fishscale, Dennis Coles has spent most of that time as an ambassador for straight up, no-nonsense gutter rap. Aside from the Ghostdini record, an R&B-infused pop album that will likely remain the most divisive moment of his career, projects like Apollo Kids, Wu-Block and Wu-Massacre have all invited an atmosphere of returning to the basics of hard drums and harder rhymes. It’s been a good period for heavy Ghostface Killah heads, but anyone looking for that little extra hook like a “Be Easy” or “Tush” weren’t going to get it.
Twelve Reasons to Die may not have a big single either, but with everything swirling around its concept this album is certainly the first Ghostface album in a while that’s demanding all eyes. A six-issue comic series; Adrian Younge’s production imagined as lifted from an imaginary spaghetti western (specifically from Italy in 1968); the rare Brown Tape remix album by Apollo Brown; and RZA executive producing are just a few of the bullet points.
It’s a concept album, then, and quite an interesting concept too. These 12 tracks act as rogue vinyls releasing the spirit of a deceased Tony Stark and Friends, revived as the Ghostface Killah and a swarm of Killah Beez, to murder the DeLucas crime family. This story can’t help but also feel like a fable-like retelling of the Ironman origin story, especially with Adrian Younge’s heavily Wu-Tang-influenced production. Organ taps on “An Unexpected Call” will bring to mind Enter the Wu-Tang‘s “Tearz” while the swirling strings throughout the album remind of RZA’s slightly more subdued spaghetti on Ironman‘s “Assassination Day” and “Marvel”.
A sample of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s immortal introduction of Ghostface (“Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”) on “The Rise of the Ghostface Killah” is almost too perfect as the ghostly warning that the DeLuca family is about to die at Phantom Tony Starks’ hands. As if that moment existed only to be repurposed in this way. Suddenly one remembers Enter the Wu-Tang will be 20 years old in just a few months.
The feel of Twelve Reasons to Die is so immaculately 1993-96 - with all the big budget touch-ups playing through a band rather than what MPCs can offer - that it’s a little disappointing the depth behind the shiny stuff isn’t always there. Having not seen the comics it’s hard to say if this is definitively the case, but Twelve Reasons to Die appears to suffer from some of the same problems as other multimedia projects like the Mass Effect video game series.
Most of the verses on this album, particularly during the three-song stretch in the middle of the album that leads to Stark’s demise and Ghost’s rise (“The Center of Attraction”, “Enemies All Around Me” and “An Unexpected Call”), feel like sketches of events the listener is expected to have knowledge of. His succubus goes unnamed for almost the entire album, and then suddenly Inspectah Deck reveals her name is Logan. Ghost waffles between complete trust and distrust over this girl so robotically and confusingly the plot threatens to skip the rail. One can’t help but feel like some art and dialogue bubbles would go a long way to adding some actual drama to her betrayal.
Still, it’s hard to get past the sound of this thing. There’s nothing quite like a nearly incomprehensible Cappadonna verse, or hearing Ghost go in over the roaring guitars and bell tolls of “The Sure Shot”. “Murder Spree” is Ghost, U-God, INS, Masta Killa and Killa Sin going totally mid-‘90s horrorcore on us; it’s mean and covered in film grain, blood - quite possibly the most blatantly violent Ghost song ever. The atmosphere of Twelve Reasons to Die is so enveloping that it could take quite a while before listeners attempt to poke holes in the rap portion of the album, and even afterwards one can easily lose an entire afternoon to it being left on loop indefinitely.
At a swift 39 minutes, the pure harmony of this music with the honed voices of Ghostface, Rebel INS and the other Wu-dudes is just unavoidably addictive. Without access to everything else that completes the cipher on this one, again, it feels like there are some holes where Stark avoided entering that “Shakey Dog” mode of storytelling in favor of more synopsis-like soliloquy. Cool continually overrides, though; every time I think my complaints are valid enough to stop listening, “Revenge Is Sweet” or “Rise of the Black Suits” or “Blood on the Cobblestones” will grab me and refuse to let go.
As a total project, Twelve Reasons to Die may be just about the most Wu-Tang thing that’s ever happened, despite the nagging suspicion that Adrian Younge is playing finders keepers with the spotlight. That sentence might say more than any of the other 800 words on this page.
// Notes from the Road
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