Note: I started writing this as a straightforward review, but got I couldn’t stop delving deeper into criticism. I’m trying to find my voice as a critic, and my lack of motivation and output has shown me that straight-up reviews aren’t my favorite things to write. Besides, there are already a million places to get reviews the day an album comes out. So lets try something different!
O and this is a discussion of a story-driven album, so there are a lot of plot spoilers within.
This album caught me completely off-guard. I heard the single, The Sure Shots, a few weeks before album release, and wasnt impressed at all. I didn’t get it. What the hell is this song about? Who did this wack beat? Later, I finally heard the full album and still didn’t get it. I tried to skim through each song and ended up completely disappointed. It sounded like all the bad music that Wu-Tang has released: random bars slung into verses on throwaway beats.
Then I finally listened to the whole thing and was blown away. This isn’t the usual collection of disjointed songs that we call an album, it’s a short story told through verses. The fact that Ghost could pull this off blew me away, not because his storytelling is subpar, far from it, but because hip-hop concept albums that are this focused are very rare. Most lose steam or have ill-fitting songs that seem to be included just for the sake of appealing to radio. 12 Reasons To Die has none of that. Hence my confusion when I heard The Sure Shots. It sucks as a single, but works well in the context of the story being told.
What is that story? Well act one introduces Ghostface as a Black gangster in an Italian crime family. He then leaves to start his own successful family. In act two he thrives, fights mob wars, and his jealous former employers plot to kill him. This stuff works well even though Ghost spends little time developing his character and all this gangster stuff was old hat for hip-hop more than 10 years ago, after Ghostface himself helped New York run it into the ground. Act three sees Ghost being murdered then coming back as a vengeful, murderous, vigilante spirit, like an undead Punisher with painted Wallabee shoes. This silly supernatural twist gives the plot some much needed differentiation. It elevates the average mafia story by turning it into a gruesome slasher movie. Sure it’s ridiculous, but it’s a nice departure from the usual rap subject matter.
But the execution of storytelling is very flawed. Too much time is spent in the third act, where Ghostface describes killing mobsters in various ways. This is easily the least fun part of the album, because violence is such an overdone topic in Ghostface’s catalog and hip-hop in general. The context of the plot is there, but it serves no purpose other than allowing some generic violence songs to exist, seemingly to appeal to gangster rap fans. At this point he pretty much gave up on the plot.
What are arguably the most interesting parts of the plot are stuffed into the first half of the album. The struggle that must have accompanied Ghost’s rise to prominence within an Italian crime family is skipped entirely. Traditionally, Italian mafia organizations in America are racist and would not have let a Black man in. Ghost understands this because he makes a point of noting that he was a Black man in an Italian family. But he never explains how he got to that position. We barely know who he was and what he did before finishing this rise to power.
Then in the same song, he leaves the family because they wouldn’t make him a made man (an official, protected mafia member, which they wouldnt do most likely because he’s Black) and he starts his own family. The makeup of that family must not matter since we aren’t given any details regarding who else is in it. And I guess leaving was as simple as putting in a two-week notice letter with his supervisor. His reign on top is described well, and of course his success attracts haters and his family seems to constantly be at war with his old family and various others.
The plot to kill Ghostface is given adequate development time. I won’t spoil what brings him down but I’ll say it’s fun despite being pretty cliche. I think his death itself happened too quickly though. The gangsters incorporate his remains into vinyl records, which I guess they keep as souvenirs because…they’re sick bastards? Instead of Rza saying that this happened, a white rapper or two should’ve played the mobsters killing him and making this decision.
Coming back as a spirit anti-hero seems cool but gets old after the first or second song that’s just about killing. Just like a bad horror movie, the interesting build-up just becomes an excuse for death-porn. Where’s the climax where the mobsters get killed in dramatic fashion?! It never happens, so at this time the plot is basically over and I’m bored, yet there’s still more music to slog through.
And while I’m in a complaining mood, the individual songs aren’t that great, largely because Adrian Younge’s beats are only decent. The consistently dark tone and their simplicity make them sound too similar so they end up forgotten behind Ghost’s lyrics. This works in the story-music context but doesn’t make for fun music to listen to. I doubt this album will be bumping in anybody’s whip.
Despite my complaints, I understand and very much appreciate what Ghost tried to do with this album. He largely succeeded in making a compelling album centered on one cohesive story. I just wish he understood which parts of the story needed more development, and maybe got some more interesting beats. While not perfect, hip-hop needs more music of this quality, and more rappers trying to advance the genre towards more meaningful music.