The pinnacle of classic East Coast Hip-Hop didn’t come in 1994 with Biggie’s Ready to Die. It came a year earlier, when a ragtag group of Kung Fu obsessives and comic book nerds crowded into a low-budget studio and recorded Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The Wu-Tang Clan’s first major release is a cramped and lo-fi experience; the lyrics and delivery are frenetic and the production sounded unlike anything else at the time. Enter the Wu-Tang is a perfectly preserved moment of East Coast brilliance that introduced the Wu-Tang Clan to the world and launched the careers of some of the best solo artists to come out of the 90s Hip-Hop scene.
The explosive first verse on “Bring Da Ruckus,” the opening track of Enter the Wu-Tang, is delivered by Ghostface Killah. Ghostface, the most consistent and most prolific Wu-Tang member, rode the success of early Wu-Tang albums into his solo efforts Supreme Clientele and Fishscale, both of which are on the list of the best Wu-Tang solo releases, alongside Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, GZA’s Liquid Swords (my personal favorite), and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers.
Ghostface continued a steady stream of albums through the 2000s and into the 2010s, but none were quite able to recapture the magic of his earlier releases. 2013’s Twelve Reasons to Die, a collaboration with Adrian Younge (who scored Black Dynamite), put Ghostface back on the map. Twelve Reasons to Die is a complex and detailed concept album based on a comic book of the same name, which garnered favorable reviews for its colorful production and deep narrative. Younge and Ghostface were clearly a match made in heaven, with the former’s reliance on sample-heavy soul and funk beats against Ghost’s trademark high-octane delivery. However, Twelve Reasons was marked by some clunky storytelling and other imperfections which stopped the album from being considered truly great.
The next two Ghostface albums, 36 Seasons in 2014 and Sour Soul earlier this year, provided some entertainment for Ghostface fans but never stood out as anything more than mediocre. Now, with Ghostface’s second album of 2015, we see him reuniting with Adrian Younge and the narrative of Twelve Reasons to Die – but this isn’t a sequel, this is a reboot. Twelve Reasons to Die II is a cinematic, narrative-driven, detail-heavy concept album that takes everything Twelve Reasons to Die did in 2013 and makes it better. Ghostface, as mafia enforcer Tony Starks, shares the stage with fellow Wu-Alum Raekwon, cast as Starks’ opposite Lester Kane. It’s a story of sex, violence, guns, fighting, and a bit of mysticism. Twelve Reasons II is one of the most complicated story-driven hip-hop albums that I’ve heard, but it’s never impossible to follow. Those portions of the story that are too difficult to rap are narrated by the soothing voice of RZA, who becomes an anchor for the album as a whole.
Twelve Reasons II sounds like a comic book. It’s difficult to describe why, but easy to see that this was intentional – Ghostface’s love of the medium is well-documented. Somewhere between the “Meanwhile…”-type narration from RZA, the nostalgic gangster narrative, Ghost’s bombastic lyricism and delivery, and Younge’s groovy, grimy production, you can almost see the individual panels come to life as you listen. Twelve Reasons II is short – barely over 30 minutes long – so it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The last song ends with a cliffhanger, hinting that we might be seeing a Twelve Reasons III between now and the end of time.
Overall, Twelve Reasons II is an impressive release. It doesn’t reach the heights of Supreme Clientele or Fishscale, but everyone knows that the Ghostface of 2015 isn’t the Ghostface of 1996. Instead, what we have in Twelve Reasons II is a concise and razor-sharp album, taking very few risks but making very few missteps. Ghostface displays the lyricism and rapping skill that weren’t present on Sour Soul, even up against impressive features from Raekwon (who also has an impressive return to form following his inoffensive-but-not-spectacular Fly International Luxurious Art), Vince Staples, and others. Twelve Reasons II hits all the right notes for a good, if not great, album, and earns its spot as the best Ghostface release of the last five years.
Wu-Tang Clan still ain't nothing to fuck with.8
Lyrics score 7
Production score 8
Composition score 8