Taken as a whole, the Wu-Tang Clan members are insanely prolific, yet there’s still a tendency to view anything related to the group through the lens of epic, especially releases from the most talented/popular/visible members. It helps that they channel larger-than-life news stories like crazy, from internal arguments over their last couple “reunion” albums to the latest, about the single-copy-only album that will reportedly be auctioned off to someone who can’t make it commercially available for 88 years.
The Wu-Tang Clan tends to play up these myths and legends, even feed off them. They feed off their origin myth, off the ghost of ODB. And they certainly feed off the legendary status some of the solo albums have taken on. Raekwon seems to be always chasing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Method Man did a sequel and prequel to Tical. And the whole group still thrives off the imagery and mythology of their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Ghostface Killah may have even more of these ghosts and legends than the others: His role in Cuban Linx. His own debut, Ironman. Other hallmark albums like Supreme Clientele and Fishscale. Even standout performances on the group albums (“Impossible” from Wu-Tang Forever, “I Can’t Go to Sleep” off The W). All of these seem to hover over his career.
From the start, he’s seemed to flit back and forth between labored-over “important” albums and larks. Heck, he does that within albums, too. And with albums or songs, for all of the hard-hitting, truly harrowing narratives of crime, poverty and relationships that he’s created, some of his most interesting work has come with weird flights of fancy, be it something like “Underwater”, where he’s swimming with mermaids and Spongebob, or the underrated love jams of Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry.
Sour Soul, a collaboration with BadBadNotGood (a Toronto jazz group known for their hip-hop covers) is without a doubt a minor work in that regard. If he tends to alternate between big and small albums, this one is small. It’s playful. It’s humble. It’s un-flashy.
Ghostface Killah has been performing with live bands on stage and off, since at least 2007, probably earlier. For 2013’s album-length horror narrative Twelve Reasons to Die, he worked with producer Adrian Younge and his band. Last year’s thematically similar, but more lightweight album 36 Seasons featured the band the Revelations, who would sometimes step in to play an R&B number on their own.
Musically, Sour Soul heads in a similar direction—a band playing classic soul-sounding tracks for Ghostface to rap over. But with the narrative replaced by fairly straightforward rhymes, it feels more relaxed, even less fussed over than 36 Seasons (which is saying something, since that album was recorded in 11 days). The album is 33 minutes long; six of those minutes are instrumentals from the band. There are times Ghostface’s vocals are almost overwhelmed by the atmosphere the musicians are creating.
The musical tone is consistent, which means consistently laid-back. The lyrics are tough talk and brags, with the occasional thoughtful moment (“Food”). You’re not going to encounter strange detours here. You also won’t come by cinematic narratives, expressions of anguish, or even the bizarre moments of humor.
Is any of that reason to discount or cast aside the album? Not at all. Ghostface Killah in relaxed mode is in some ways a treat. Yes he gets upstaged by guest MCs at least twice (Danny Brown on “Six Degrees” and Elzhi on “Gunshowers”; perhaps the album’s two best tracks). Yes, you’re going have to listen to this album a lot of times for one of Ghostface’s rhymes to really stick in your brain. But he still sounds great over these tracks.
Sour Soul is a quiet storm, a Sunday night moment to relax. Even when Ghostface Killah is flexing his muscles, he’s doing it within an inherently mellow, unimportant context. This might not be a classic, but for fans, it’s still filled with its own pleasures. Minor pleasures are still pleasures, at the end of the day.