Friday, February 27, 2015

BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul Review

Of all the Wu-Tang affiliates only Ghostface remains as a true testament to that classic musty New York street sound, with all the other emcees, save for Raekwon, dropping like flies. He's been blazing a trail with his previous albums, namely 12 Reasons To Die and 36 Seasons, by profiting off a character three parts shrouded in mystery, violence, and comic book fantasy. The former acted as a sort of re-kindling for Ghostface amongst the Hip-Hop community, an elusive pairing of 1970's mobster soundtrack eeriness with street stories that, despite being played out, relished in the newfound sound, a sound lost since the days of RZA's dominance. Knowing his success he brandished the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" by trying to capture that same essence off 36 Seasons, accomplishing it in many regards but with nothing more than a re-imagined packaging to adorn its cover the sound merely stagnated. His latest attempted match made in heaven features backing instrumentation from famed Jazz/Hip-Hop collective BadBadNotGood, and while Sour Soul, much like Ghostface's predecessors, still elevates itself to a quality rap album, what was written on paper beforehand had the promise of a much better project. 

We've seen flashes of what rappers sound like atop BadBadNotGood's densely layered, organically-grown beats, a showing of their diversity from their own albums in which free-forming movements define the flow, only inhibited in some aspects to their expansive collection of covers. On songs like Earl Sweatshirt's 'Hoarse' the production soared behind the lyricist, oftentimes out-shining the emcee himself. Here though, as per Ghost's style, everything is stripped back, and yet, BadBadNotGood succeeds once again. Their beats are the most structured that they've produced yet with limited moments of experimentation forming skeletal backbones hardly swaying from the melodic foundations they emphasize. And in nearly all facets, it works. It gives Ghost a basis to work off of, the old, dingy production reminiscent of gangster soundtracks or James Bond flicks from the 70's, as seen most clearly on the instrumental closer to 'Ray Gun,' you can almost hear the crackling of the screen play through the music. Problem is though, Ghost has been using this same strategy for two years, just masking it with a different beat-maker. To those going into this album fresh the pairing will seem sincere and visionary, but the matter of fact remains that Ghost feels complacent with his role, not interested in having it waver.

It's unfortunate though because after 11 solo albums, Ghost's material has never changed, merely becoming diluted under his own restraint in escaping his own cliches. The biggest letdown on the album comes from Ghost himself, evident in his portrayal of his character who has become bored with rehashing the concepts time and time again. 'Mind Playing Tricks' is your typical look at murder victims, while parrying it with killing it on the mic. 'Tone's Rap' is the life of a pimp, and 'Street Knowledge' focuses on, you guessed it, gaining knowledge through living in the ghetto. It's really all trivial. We know it, Ghost knows it, everyone knows it, and yet the true struggle comes from his inability to escape it. Making matters more ironic, we have Pretty Toney's braggadocios style on 'Gunshowers,' "I bust boundaries son, you just do what you taught," a laughable statement considering Ghost hasn't done anything of the sort in nearly two decades. Periodically spicing things up though is Danny Brown, Elzhi, Tree, and DOOM, all of which outshine Ghostface by a wide, wide margin, bringing their unique flavors to the production giving it the dimensionality Sour Soul's lacking. 

If it wasn't for these pivotal additions and BadBadNotGood's impenetrably ominous soundscapes, Ghost wouldn't have an album to stand on. All the best tracks here feature the additional rappers, as 'Six Degrees' with Danny Brown showcases the prodders' talents at exercising a rappers talents best, switching up beats with Danny's arrival, a verse that rivals some of his best. Elzhi once again illuminates why he's one of the most underrated emcee's in the game, while DOOM remains DOOM on the cartoony 'Ray Gun,' a pairing everyone's hoped. The duo lack chemistry however, largely due to the clear phoned in verses, a detractor to much of Sour Soul as every inch remains uninspired and detached from the album's center man. All these artists attempt to lift Ghost up, but his drearily tedious lyrics and repetitious brags almost inconclusively elude to an emcee long past his expiration date. Not to be said often, it's actually a saving grace we only hear Ghost on nine of the album's 12 tracks, with many of those comprising only one verse from the Wu-Tang bee, as each added verse would have only mitigated the album's already troubling content. 

What can be said positively for Sour Soul is what echoes in its chambers. BadBadNotGood's patent for free-flowing production evolution and narrow-minded beat-making goes a long way, with the latter overflowing Sour Soul's palate with enticing works featuring moving piano progressions, hard-nosed drum loops, and instances of trumpets, guitars, and strings. These final instruments are used more sparingly during times when the sound reaches its pinnacle, a nice touch to add diversity to an album sorely lacking it. Ghostface Killah's latest work could have been an exercise in atmospheric storytelling, a work in echoing decades back to a fantastical era that never before existed, filled with gangsters masked like super villains disguising themselves in the night to serve up justice with a soundtrack marching in their head fueling their vigilantism. Rather, Sour Soul comes off insipid, fruitless, and dry, rarely offering a reason to pursue its depths. The features fall into place like pinpointed cogs in the puzzle, awaiting their turn to show off their worth, which they do, but without a moving centerpiece the fittings remain motionless and detached. BadBadNotGood's futile attempt to rekindle Ghostface's career has landed the latter in another desperate attempt at rekindling magic that was, in the first place, largely attributed to the peculiar beats lurking in the background, not the content Ghost recycles each go around. 

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