Hot off the heels of an impressive album with the Delfonics’s William Hart, a jazz enthusiast who helped establish hip-hop as a genre, Adrian Younge is back with a new collaborator. This time, it is none other than Ghostface Killah, an esteemed member of the seminal New York hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. Their pairing is certainly a match made in heaven—“Twelve Reasons to Die” integrates Younge’s masterful compositions with Ghostface Killah’s impeccable delivery for an ambitious and impressive concept album.
“Twelve Reasons to Die,” in a grotesque style reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, tells a revenge story of a mafia boss, Tony Starks, who forms his own syndicate after betraying the DeLuca family. Unbeknownst to Starks, the DeLucas exploit their array of disposable men and pretty women to extract their revenge and fashion Starks’s melted body into twelve vinyl records. “But little did they know / He [Starks] would return,” as the Ghostface Killah when the records are played, ready to extract his bloody revenge.
Younge’s production plays an integral role in the success of this album. The arrangement constantly alludes to the roots of hip-hop, but is most prominent in two songs–“Enemies All Around Me” and “Revenge is Sweet.” For those familiar with Younge’s work, the composition of “Enemies All Around Me” will sound familiar, as Ghostface Killah raps over “Enemies,” a dark song from Younge’s previous album with the Delfonics. Whereas the murky, threatening track was rather distinct and perhaps out of place in the Delfonics collection, the crazed melodies fit right in with the haunting atmosphere that Younge and Ghostface Killah have created. Hart’s interjected falsetto and chorus complements the anguish in Ghostface Killah’s verses after being betrayed, and this crossover between two hip-hop revolutionaries easily makes this one of the album’s best songs.
“Revenge Is Sweet” intertwines classic Delfonic jazz with contemporary hip-hop beats for a successful single. The song begins with a heavy bass line and a soft, choral sequence characteristic of the Delfonics before escalating into a crescendo with interplaying male and female voices. Ghostface Killah kicks in midway through the song, delivering frantic, charged verses. With lyrics such as “Ay yo, revenge is sweet / That’s why I take my time with it,” Ghostface successfully exposes Starks’s elation at his new quest. Younge also arranges the song such that it concludes with the overlaid male and female tracks with which the song began. This symmetrical arrangement places Younge and Killah’s hip-hop in perspective: the album is heavily contemporary at its core, with Ghostface Killah as the narrator, but the classic arrangements and influences—the brainchildren of Younge—add depth to Ghostface Killah’s already sophisticated approach to the genre.
That said, what makes this album great may also be what keeps it obscure. As a concept album with a linear story, the emphasis is on the integrity of the narrative as opposed to number of chart topping hits—tracks themselves are not meant to be standalone pieces. Songs from this album wouldn’t find their way into mainstream radio channels; as individual tracks, taken out of context, sound outright confusing—“I heard the DeLucas laughin’ and then shit got hot / They said ‘Die Tony Starks, you gonna melt like a record.’” As a collection, however, the album is extremely successful, and this minor identity crisis can be overlooked. What Younge and Ghostface Killah have created here is a masterpiece, and the sound of eerie, drafty wind overlaid with the ominous, repetitive piano sequence in the concluding track caps off a soon-to-be horror classic.
“Twelve Reasons to Die” gives us a glimpse of hip-hop at its best. Working within their genre, which has a rich history of contemporary and classic forms, Adrian Younge and Ghostface Killah understand the capabilities of hip-hop as a storytelling tool and have created a narrative-driven masterwork. “Twelve Reasons to Die” is an excellent testament to hip-hop’s mutability.