There aren't too many albums, hip-hop or otherwise, that necessitate a plot summary before you can get down to pontificating, but Twelve Reasons To Die, Ghostface Killah's new horror hip-hop opera, necessitates it. Not knowing its plot would be like talking about the final court scene in Goodfellas without having watched the rest of the movie. You can get into the nuances of the scene that make it great if you possess an overly-analytical, critical mind, but some or most of the emotional weight is lost if you don't know and care about what Jimmy and Paulie have been through with Henry before he betrays them.
So what has Ghostface Killah been through on Twelve Reasons To Die? On the LP, he plays Tony Starks, a black gangster who makes his name with the DeLucas, a white Italian crime family. He's young, ruthless and well-known for his ability as a killer ("Young aggressor, born into the life of crime / I would walk down the streets strapped with two nines"), and thusly rises fast through their ranks. Yet they refuse to make him a "made man," and half-way through the first verse on the second track, Starks leaves the DeLucas, tired of not getting his. "I blacked out on them and started my own clan."
In short order, his new clan's success wreaks havoc on the crime world. "One day I'm just Black Tone with a lot of ambition / Next I got status, dinners with all courses / Flights in and out of the country, they getting nauseous." The third track, "I Declare War," sees the outbreak of all-out gang war. The battles spill out into the civilian world, "judges get kidnapped" and "casualties get decapitated." Just as Starks takes control of the bloody underworld, he falls for a white girl, and, as his associates predict, she sets him up. On "An Unexpected Call," the DeLucas murder their former employee, and promptly have his remains chopped up and melted down into twelve vinyl records—"one for each member of the family," as RZA tells us in the introduction to "Rise of Ghostface Killah." Starks stays dead not even for one song, and then he gets back to doing what he does best: killing everyone. Now though, he's the Ghostface Killah, and the murders become increasingly cruel, and he kills simply for pleasure of revenge. "That's why I take my time with it / Like good pussy I just stay when I'm up in it." The DeLucas are wiped out, and Ghostface Killah becomes the stuff of gangster legend.
Twelve Reasons to Die is a straightforward concept album, and it's very well done. Adrian Younge and his band do a fantastic job of with the backing tracks, matching and enhancing the mood of the story while still allowing Ghostface's slick flow and brutal lyrics take most of the spotlight. Strings guide the contemplative parts, and staccato drums take control of the soundscape in the more violent sequences. Symbol hits, brooding guitars and choral backing dictate the scene when Starks feels the walls pressing in.
While the LP rarely rarely transcends its concept album world, I can't point to a bad song on the record. It is what it is, but if you're willing to go to a meta-level, the album also works nicely as something of a loose and extremely violent metaphor for Ghostface's real-life career. Back in the early nineties, he and the rest of Wu-Tang were busy trying to start crack into the industry—not by fitting into the existing music hustle, but by overthrowing it. "We tryin to make a business outta this man," as Method Man says on the intermission of Enter the Wu-Tang. "We ain't tryin to affiliate ourselves with them fake ass A&R's and all that. We tryin to make our shit."
Since then, Wu-Tang have become something of their own business, a brand recognized by people who scarcely know their music, but they've lost ODB and most of their own careers have zombified since those early, intense days. When the first single for Twelve Reasons To Die came across across the wire, my editor and I reacted with trepidation. "I lent my care to so many Wu Tang releases only to be left disappointed or numb," he said. Of course we hadn't listened yet, and now that we have, that disillusion has been shed. Ghostface and executive producer RZA have come back to life simply to do what they love: make excellent, disturbing hip-hop. A Better Tomorrow can't come soon enough. [B]
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