Stew (Passing Strange, the Negro Problem) Talks Ghostface Killah’s 12 Reasons to Die

The new release by Ghostface Killah and producer/film score composer/record store owner/entertainment law professor Adrian Younge...

The new release by Ghostface Killah and producer/film score composer/record store owner/entertainment law professor Adrian Younge, 12 Reasons to Die, is not a collection of songs, but rather a midnight movie of the kind I’d prepare for way back when, on some long-ago Saturday night, by sitting in the theater’s parking lot huddled five deep inside my friend’s mama’s bucket and getting so satanically stoned I was certain the girl tearing my ticket knew I was wasted… and then I fell asleep during the opening credits exactly like I did on Eraserhead — not because it was boring but because I also drank two cans of OE 800 to get rid of the cotton-mouth but ended up getting rid of consciousness altogether. My friends thought it was funny as hell that I was sleeping through the whole fucking movie. Right. Funny.

This is a concept album devised, directed and birthed by Maestro Adrian Younge that tells tales of Tony Starks (an alter ego of Mr. Killah), a soldier for the DeLucas, a ’60s-era crime family. Once Starks exits the “family” biz, it’s on like extra sauce: a saga erupts like an OG horror movie with a gangster lean. It’s a story not for the squeamish, a classic good vs. evil joint with better acting than most of those Academy Award folks.

While listening to the record you may be distracted by the sound of what you’re certain is a projector running, a couple having sex behind you, and a crazy lady screaming advice up to the screen at Tony Starks about who he should and should not trust. This record needs a trailer narrated by a guy with a raspy, world weary ’70s voice intoning…”Tony Starks has a problem…”

So the next week I went back alone to see 12 Reasons to Die — on the bus this time, which sucked, and minus the OE. Seconds into the smile-inducing, wonderfully corny opening credits number wherein a chorus of ladies advise me to “Beware of the Stare of the Ghostface Killer.” I can feel the sticky soda under my feet as I stare up at the screen and enter the musical mise en scene of this dynamic duo, hip-hop’s Godard/Belmondo combo, and I thrill to Mr. Killah’s vivid array of tough guys, mob broads, and leather jackets. I’m invited to stroll, warily, down Maestro Adrian Younge’s musical mean streets of blood and betrayal… yeah, this is a straight-up downtown movie theater flick, as we called them, a hot-buttered tribute to the power of words and sound as cinema.

This is an auteur record, for you can feel/hear one hand, one mind, one vision guiding the tour. Fellini had Mastroianni, Truffaut had Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Adrian Younge has Ghostface Killah.

These movies were never about plot, they were about immersion into a foreign world you thanked God you didn’t live in but didn’t wanna leave. You don’t observe these movies, you enter them, you tag along with the tough guys, you buy in, you light people’s cigarettes and shut the fuck up.

“Revenge Is Sweet” is my favorite cut. It opens with a high-pitched, haunted vocal over a deliciously odd meter. Melodically, and this is what I love about this record, it kicks ass over any indie-pop soft-boy shit you could possibly sleep through. This is real composing, not just juxtaposing. Mr. Younge is old in the head. He’s onto some ancient shit: that shit called Music.

In “Revenge Is Sweet,” Mr. Killah’s poem is all about how unfortunate it would be for you to end up on his bad side — a common theme, yes, but as gruesome as the raps can be, once the record morphs from Tony’s story into Ghostface’s, the music remains so tense and lusciously inviting that the contrast between the horror depicted and the intoxicating beauty of the music becomes, rather than a failed, awkward collage, instead a challenging and defining aesthetic of the work itself, a tightrope walk this masterpiece does both confidently and consistently. I mean, you gotta deal with lyrics about dismemberment to the sound of some lovely arpeggios played on Odd Couple theme-sounding keyboards. And why not? It’s easy to play “scary”-sounding music and scream scary-sounding shit over it. But this painfully beautiful record is more like life: the ugly and the beautiful are two sides of the same LP… I mean, coin.

There is a holy trinity that defines, in a nutshell, the mad, wicked genius of this record: 12 Reasons to Die is as melodically rich (thank you, Mr. Younge) as it is rhythmically surprising and engaging, while being a sweeping, deeply poetic, epic work of classic story-telling. I know there ain’t been no record out lately that does what this record does, but I’m doubting there has ever been a record that has. When high art comes with some serious low end, ’tis cause to celebrate.

This record’s got more odd meters than a heart clinic. It’s one of the many genius ways Maestro Younge keeps us on the edge of our seats. And again, it’s not the plot that thickens so much as the bass… the fever-dream funereal organs and strings of existential dread give us more necessary, fundamental information than the descriptions of all the different ways Ghostface Killah can stop you from being alive… not that they aren’t expertly laid out for us — of course, for they are. His raps are the bloody icing on a richly detailed, multi-layered cake. The artists seem to be challenging us to adjust our definitions of what is allowed in the realm of Beauty. Horror has found a seductive groove and it doesn’t wanna let go.

Ghostface Killah’s storytelling skills are already legendary but his fruitful union with the incredibly talented Mr. Younge is undoubtedly going to be seen as a defining moment in both their careers. Even if they never make another record, you know this is gonna be one of those LPs that people hark back to, ages from now. It might even take some people that long to get it.

The closing cut, from which we get the album’s title, is a gorgeous instrumental piece based largely around a piano that sounds like the out-of-tune one at your grandma’s back in the ’70s… this is a closing credits theme all the way and it’s a tour de force that, like this brilliant work of art, ends too early.

Stew is the writer and co-creator of the Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange and the singer of the Negro Problem. You can follow him on Twitter here.