There is no hip-hop act with a higher regard for the cinematic than the Wu-Tang Clan. It starts with the very foundation the group was erected from: RZA, GZA and O.D.B. bombing around kung-fu theaters in their childhood. 36 years later (appropriately so), the Clan has collectively put out a feature length movie, acquired cinematic aliases (Tony Starks, the “Master Killer”, etc.) and sampled a plethora of films from The Education of Sonny Carson (1974) to The Killer (1989). The latest cinematic venture, Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons to Die II, is a sequel to his acclaimed 2013 concept album, Twelve Reasons to Die – a collaboration with producer Adrian Younge to evoke a “vintage horror film“.
Once again, Adrian Younge sets the scene perfectly, steering Twelve Reasons II into dusky, sordid places where Ghostface can run rampant. The opening tracks, “Return of the Savage” and “King of New York” feature chilling guitar riffs affected by heavy tremolo – similar to Nancy Sinatra’s Bang, Bang – creating the feeling of an action-packed spy film. Younge also includes rhythm guitars on “Get the Money” and “King of New York”, and horn blasts on “Black Out” that hark to Superfly (1972), The Mack (1973) and other boisterous blaxploitation soundtracks. Younge wears his influences on his sleeve, and it not only fulfills the promise of creating a crime-ridden underworld, but it also suits Ghostface’s penchant for the dusty, soulful sounds of the 70’s.
The story from Twelve Reasons I details Ghostface’s death and resurrection via his supernatural spirit embedded in 12 vinyl records. This time around, it’s less ghost story and more 70’s gangster movie. Raekwon co-stars as Lester Kane, Ghost’s confidant in exacting revenge on the DeLuca family. The result is typical Ghost-Rae imagery: “Tie bricks around his ankles, have him swimming with sharks” (“Get the Money”). But even though this braggadocios style is what he does best, Ghost doesn’t seem to be treading any new ground here. The strongest track is “Death’s Invitation”, where Scarab, Lyrics Born and Chino XL weave together a rapid stream-of-consciousness about the clash of the Kane and DeLuca armies. Their machine gun delivery pumps some serious Shakey Dog-caliber energy into the song, and to top it off, Ghostface appears in rare form, rapping acapella about “strangling [DeLuca’s] daughter” and “butchering his babies“. Ghostface is out to prove, after his somewhat lackadaisical 36 Seasons last year, that he does not intend to rest.
Ghost and Rae are 45 years old, and with every new release there is a certain expectation that they, like many others of the boom-gap pedigree, will decelerate. And though they have somewhat, Twelve Reasons II is still a chief example of the vitality left in them. Ghostface also subverts any and all sluggishness by bringing in very young rappers: Vince Staples and Scarub. Introducing new voices adds another veneer of sound, and avoids becoming flat, like some Wu releases as of late. The overall sound is a nice continuation of the cinematic vibe from Twelve Reasons I, although it would have been nice to see Ghostface and Younge push the concept even further. The track, “Daily News” (where Ghostface is playing a reporter covering the DeLuca massacre) is a step in the right direction. If we get a Twelve Reasons III, one can only hope for more playful concepts like this.
While not a whole lot of ground is broken, there is still fun to be had in hearing Ghostface over vintage beats. The inclusion of Raekwon’s character feels like a warm welcome, as does RZA’s enlarged role as the omniscient narrator. As a result, the story concept is stronger, and keeps Wu-Tang’s time-honored cinematic tradition alive.