Brooklyn veteran Ghostface Killah is the Frank Zappa of hip-hop with his penchant for storytelling and his weirdo take on vintage soul music. Collaborating with Toronto’s BadBadNotGood on their new fabulously experimental album Sour Soul, his sound is more in line with classic Wu-Tang Clan than it has been since Enter the 36 Chambers. BadBadNotGood are a bass/keys/drums combination with a deep love of hip-hop and have seamless accompanied acts like Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, and backed Pharoah Monch during 2012’s Manifesto fest. They effortlessly transform lone emcees’ sets into a Roots-like experience.
Then there’s Ghostface. On 2004’s Supreme Clientele, and his 2006 album Fishscale (arguably his best work), the Wu-Tang Clan member kept hip-hop’s trademark deep beats alongside a bevvy of non-melodic samples, organs, guitars, jazz bass, and drums. On Sour Soul, his tenacity perseveres with a new spin on hip-hop’s most traditional production values.
Two years in the making and with heavy involvement from Grammy winner Frank Dukes (Eminem’s the Marshall Mathers LP 2) and Ghostface’s spirit animal MF DOOM, the end result is more than just a pet project of band and emcee. While any other live band might go for the ferocious vibe of a song like “The Champ”, Badbadnotgood forgo the aggressive approach to elicit the dreamy, textured, laid-back vibe of Pretty Toney album. The band’s instrumentation creates a smoky backdrop for Ghostface’s key strength: storytelling.
On Sour Soul’s third track, ”6 Degrees of Separation” (arguably the album’s best), the band create a creeping pastiche of RZA’s earliest production work – the heady reverb sound from older tracks like “Da Mystery of Chessboxin” and “Guillotine (Swordz)”. The instrumentation is tight, focused and raw while Ghostface harnesses a lyrical tornado erupting in a fever dream of guns, drugs and street royalty with lyrics “6 inch, 6-pack, 6-degrees of separation / my evil third eye blinks with no hesitation.” Trippy wunderkind Danny Brown carries his own weight on the track as his post-nasal drip vocals fit in beautifully (as it has in the past) with BadBadNotGood.
The album hits its stride with “Mind Playing Tricks” and the collaborators comfortably coast on cruise control. Keyboardist Matthew Tavares dominates with soaring organs and bassist Chester Hansen’s buttery basslines demand repeated listen just to appreciate their ease of sophistication. Again, Ghostface reaches peak boast here with lines like “Click clack my stacks of cash make Walter White look like I got the pure vocab”.
BadBadNotGood’s triumph is their subversion of traditional hip-hop sonic values – where thumping beats typically fill the bottom end of the sonic spectrum, their live instrumentation is spacey. There are no “bangers” on Sour Soul and these spaces may slightly dampen Ghostface’s impact. While this is not music for the club, the live instrumentation will undoubtedly be straight-up explosive live.
Gonzo collaborations between artists from differing genres is almost always a welcome idea, but the execution is a very different story. The 2014 joint album between Philadelphia’s the Roots and Elvis Costello is a cautionary tale. But Sour Soul boasts a rare symbiotic relationship between the two – the Toronto trio rejuvenated Ghostface’s chameleonic style and he accents their ebullient instrumentation.
Essential Tracks: “Six Degrees”, “Mind Playing Tricks”, “Stark’s Reality”