Ghostface Killah might be known best as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, but take a quick look at his Wikipedia page and it’s very clear that he’s much more than just a Wu disciple. He’s released 10 studio albums — including two classics and an R&B-styled one — six collaboration projects, appeared in six films, five TV series and four video games. Simply put, Ghostface constantly refines and expands his game, even 20 years after Wu-Tang’s classic debut.

Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge

Twelve Reasons to Die
Soul Temple Records

It’s not a complete surprise, then, that Ghostface decided to cut a concept album with a live band — led by a mostly unknown producer — centered on a mythological black mafia don in 1960s Italy. The album, Twelve Reasons to Die, is also being released with an accompanying comic book. Of course it is.

Ghostface and Adrian Younge — the Los Angeles-based producer behind Twelve Reasons to Die — somehow manage to expand Wu-Tang Clan’s seemingly unchangeable sound into an entirely new product. Granted, Younge’s haunting, sweeping instrumentals take more than a couple pages from the playbook of the album’s executive producer, narrator and Wu-Tang founder RZA, but for the most part, Twelve Reasons to Die captures the greatness of Wu-Tang while also putting an original twist on its signature style.

The story arch revolves around Tony Starks — one of Ghostface’s many alter egos — and his rise, fall and rebirth battling the fictional DeLuca mob family in the crime world of 1960s Italy. The album flows together naturally from the introductory overture “Beware of the Stare,” mostly due to Younge’s cinematic instrumental combination of classic Wu-Tang style beats, 1960s vintage soul and jazz. The presence of Younge and his band, Venice Dawn, is felt on every track of the album through extended outros and mid-song breakdowns during which Ghostface seems completely content to step aside and let the music play.

Still, Twelve Reasons to Die is a Ghostface Killah album, and the authentic feel of the live band backing him only makes Ghostface sound better. His wit, storytelling and ferocity are as strong as they have ever been, and though it’s clear he’s somewhat out of his comfort zone with the new style at times — his trademark charisma seems lost behind the band on the first two songs, “Rise of the Black Suits” and “The Center of Attraction.”

But when he finds his groove, he’s unstoppable. Ghostface bursts out the gates firing on the third track, “I Declare War,” an opera-wailing, organ-laced tale of his conquering the DeLuca family.

Though surrounded by ornate production and attention worthy Wu-Tang member appearances, Ghostface makes sure to stick to the storyline of the album. He falls in love with the Boss’s daughter on “The Center of Attraction,” and then becomes paranoid about her allegiance to him on the excellent and grimy “Enemies All Around Me” featuring the high-pitched wails of William Hart, the former lead singer of the Delfonics.

Tony Starks’s suspicions are confirmed when the Boss’s daughter sells him out on the seventh track, “An Unexpected Call (The Set Up).” However, this is far from the end.

On “The Rise of Ghostface Killah,” maybe the best song on the album, RZA narrates how the DeLuca family pressed Tony’s remains into 12 vinyl records. Tony, then, is able to come back from the dead and wreak havoc as Ghostface Killah. “Medusa stare, my guns bust in silence / I’m a black vigilante killer, pro violence / It’s the rebirth, born again / Rise through the vinyl spin,” he raps confidently over Younge’s simple break-beat and noir-film-sounding guitar strums.

The rest of the album finishes up Ghostface’s rise and takeover with “The Catstrophe,” “Murder Spree” and “The Sure Shot (Parts 1 and 2).” For the standout posse-cut “Murder Spree,” Ghostface, U-God, Masta Killa, Inspecta Deck and Killa Sin all take turns detailing the different ways to die, from guillotines, cyanide, ice picks and, as Ghostface threatens over the lingering opera in the background, “Ghost carved through your skin tissue till the bone grizzle.”

The very same complexity that makes Twelve Reasons to Die work is also the album’s biggest potential flaw. Granted, most listeners who get the album are die-hard Ghostface fans that are prepared to dissect his every rhyme, yet for the common listener, there’s a good chance Ghostface and Younge’s fantastical and noir-drenched concept won’t be understood completely.

The album ends with the instrumental coda title track, which effectively immortalizes the legend of Tony Starks with looping Wu-Tang piano and slow violins. He has risen from the grave to reclaim what is his, and through the haze of Younge’s swirling and wild synths, you can almost see Ghostface fading into the darkness in a cloud of cigar smoke, the wind howling outside his window, quietly waiting to pounce on his next challenger.

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