It's a testament to how far hip-hop has come in recent decades that one of this year's biggest releases sees big-name veteran Ghostface Killa collaborating with Canadian jazz trio, BadBadNotGood. 'Sour Soul' comes as the third link on Ghostface's chain of live-backed albums but BBNG's first full-length recording project with a rap vocalist. The trio appropriate their sound to the film-noir-style of the previous two Ghostface albums; 'Twelve Reasons to Die' and '36 Seasons'.
Despite rumours prior to its release, Ghostface does not feature on every track - three instrumental tracks are included, which offer pretty interludes to the album's dark narrative. Opener 'Mono' builds playfully, xylophone and a climbing bass line drive the song into a rousing teaser of what's to come. 'Starks Reality' and final track 'Experience' demonstrate masterful use of brass and string arrangements, the latter of which is not only one of the album's brightest moments but comes across as strikingly professional and sincere.
Ghostface's stronger points on 'Sour Soul' are mostly in its latter half; centrepiece 'Tone's Rap' sees Ghostface bellyaching as fictional pimp, (- "b***h- the f**k I got lint on my robe/ I can't pimp in these clothes") to results that are both aggressive and comic. 'Mind's Playing Tricks' is an ode to GK's evil villain alter-ego, boasting bad-assery ("Street clientèle I flip, Buy and sell half the chains/ leaving a mark on my neck, That ain't frail.") And on his last two tracks, 'Food' and 'Nuggets of Wisdom', GFK spits life advice at his audience, ("Superficial, don't get sucked into the scene/ The grass ain't always green, the meat ain't always lean"). These moments help to develop the album's thematic concepts as well as offering GFK wider lyrical territory.
BBNG successfully evoke the vintage, soulful palette of second-wave Ghostface, channelling film-noir revenge narratives with lush and soulful instrumentation. It is often possible to forget you're listening to BadBadNotGood and sink into the sexy nostalgia of that byegone aesthetic.
It's unclear how writing and recording duties were shared on this album, but GFK's verses are often not only brief, but frequently underdeveloped, (" Love razors, dirty guns with a few dead bodies/ Teach n****s how to walk again from the f**kin shotty") particularly when put beside the spasmodic energy of Danny Brown for example, or Detroit rapper Elzhi, who (regardless of his very evident closeness to sleep) manages to sound a lot more impressive than GFK. Even his hooks, when present, sound clunky and rushed.
'Sour Soul' is much more of an achievement for BadBadNotGood than Ghostface. If not for their acute interpretation of noir "crimejazz" then for their structural quirkiness, exchanging hip-hop's space for samples with similarly-toned horn and string arrangements. In terms of orchestrating and delivering a conceptual collaborative project, hats off are deserved to not only Ghostface and BBNG, but producer Frank Dukes. But disappointingly, in his vintage, seedy soundscape GFK doesn't quite hit as hard as he used to, instead giving space to some of the scene's younger, more diverse acts (BBNG and guests Elzhi and Tree) to prove their weight.
Sour Soul is out today, 24th February 2015, on Lex Records.
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