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Twelve Reasons to Die is a rap album that begins with an overture and ends with an instrumental coda. The songs were composed by Adrian Younge, a producer and musician who's fairly new to the scene, recorded live and authored by a rapper with 20 years in the business, the Ghostface Killah, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan. The result is unusual — a vivid and intricate melodrama that's both backward-looking and forward-thinking.
"It's the first time in my life I tried something like this," says Ghostface before his second-ever performance of this new material with Younge and his band, Venice Dawn. It's a surprising thing to hear from an artist of his longevity — and he has attempted many of the gambits on Twelve Reasons to Die before. He's done concept albums, made filmic songs, invented characters, performed with a band, played supporting and featured roles. But he's never had this type of working relationship with the tracks he's rhyming over — the music was wholly composed for this project, which was conceived as a story before anything else. It works like Tommy, if Ghostface is Roger Daltrey and Younge is Pete Townshend. "I'm a film composer," says Younge. "But I'm a hip-hop guy."
As those involved tell it, the story came first, the music second and the lyrics last. Twelve Reasons to Die is the creation myth of a black superhero set in 1960s Italy, which looks a lot like 1990s Scorsese. The curtain opens on a young man born into a life of crime. But anyone familiar with Robert De Niro's characters in Goodfellas and Casino knows what's coming next when Ghostface's character rhymes, "I was a boss among white boys, rocking a 'fro." He hits the ceiling, leaves to start a black syndicate, falls in love with a boss's daughter and makes a ton of money importing cocaine. For these crimes, the criminal organization he came up in murders him and dumps his body in a vat of acetate. His former friends press 12 records from his remains, but when those records play, his vengeful spirit arises. Though he was rebuffed and disrespected in life, in legend the Ghostface Killah becomes immortal.
Twelve Reasons to Die has all the makings of a cult classic. Jangly, tumbleweed guitar that warms the cold-hearted comic book-style violence. Snyth stabs that evoke Bernard Herrmann's violin screeches in Psycho. William Hart's age-spotted tone reminding us of our own mortality and the planes where soul music and hip-hop meet. The drums are loud and high in the mix, driving when our hero readies for a fight, as on "Blood on the Cobblestones," uncomfortably tight just as he's betrayed during "An Unexpected Call (The Set Up)" and charged like a car chase while he tastes revenge on "Sure Snot (Parts One & Two)," the only song that could be a single.
The atmospherics and plot development fit right in with Wu-Tang albums of the past, most closely another Ghostface collaboration, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. And Wu-Tang associates appear here: the RZA most prominently, Cappadonna most memorably, Inspectah Deck most ably and Masta Killa carrying the most weight. From beyond the grave Ol' Dirty Bastard makes his presence felt — his introduction of Ghostface on 1993's "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" reverberates on "The Rise of the Ghostface Killah." Ghostface says he went back to his Wu brothers because he needed veterans who know how to tell a story.
And Ghostface would know — he is a true writer. He's painterly and agile. His style is emphatic, and he takes every verse seriously. He bobs and weaves with the track, but he maintains a forthright and basically conversational sentence structure, which, when he's describing the ways he might murder your children, really twists the knife.
The mood of the album is fragile, and the whole project is a definite risk. Both Ghostface and Younge are making fictional music here, but the knife's edge they're walking — between theater and theatrics, between noir and B-movie — feels very real. That they make it across without falling is a relief and an eye-opener.
In the grand tradition of the Wu-Tang Clan, Twelve Reasons to Die is brash and Technicolor and heartfelt. It is not what you would expect from a rap album, or a Ghostface album, or a film score. As Ghostface says, on "Rise of the Black Suits," "Rules are for fools."