Pitchfork Reviews Ghostface/ BBNG - Sour Soul

Remy Danton

All Star
Dec 18, 2013

Once upon a time, the prospect of hearing Ghostface over moody live-band psychedelic soul held promise. Twelve Reasons to Die dropped less than two years ago, and Adrian Younge’s outsized 8mm splatter-flick gloom funk was fresh enough to make the record sound something like a comeback. Ghost’s storytelling had certainly been stronger in the past, but at least he was SPINNING his conceptual tales over murky, time-faded R&B-noir. After further collaborations with groups carrying Real Instruments, like the déjà vu of last year’s 36 Seasons, where Ghost teamed up with Brooklyn funk band the Revelations for another detail-scarce Tony Starks yarn, the novelty has worn off, and it’s easy to start asking whether Ghost still has it.

Toronto jazz-funk dons BADBADNOTGOOD are a good fit , ably replicating the kind of gritty ’70s pulp-paperback breaks Ghostface has long favored. But Sour Soul could have every musician who ever played with the J.B.’s backing him up and it still wouldn’t obscure the fact that he’s slacking on the mic. His voice is still his, and it’s difficult if not impossible for Ghostface to actually sound bored. But if you gravitated to DOOM team-up "Ray Gun" just because "Angels" was hot and still hold out hope that Swift & Changeable will see light of day, the disappointment will hit hard: "Back in black, it’s your local superhero from the hood/ Ironman Starks got the good/ Not that good good like Snoop/ I bulletproofed the coupe/ Polished up the suit and gathered the troops." He goes on to make a Matrix reference in the year 2015 and states "Ain’t a bird or a plane, it’s a ghost on the mic." A ghost of himself, maybe.

Ghostface gets outshone every time there’s a guest verse—a concentrated dose of DOOM wiseassedness on "Ray Gun"; Elzhi punchlining all over "Gunshowers"; Tree rasping with a thousand-yard stare on "Street Knowledge"; the continued lights-out rampage streak ofDanny Brown on "Six Degrees"—but the feeling that he can barely carry this record on the mic goes beyond that. His flair for narrative and knack for offbeat observational details are nearly gone; pop-culture punchlines land with a thud and play more like spot-the-reference jokes than evocative analogies—"my clan is Bravehearts, you move like Paul Blart" on the title cut is probably the most egregious example.

Ghostface still knows how to balance his most well-known facets: the bombastic comic-book hero, the ruthless criminal mastermind, and the independent philosophical thinker. Ghost working through these notions in such close quarters doesn’t really feel like a personality crisis; he’s always been equally convincing as a man dispensing advice on keeping your drug distribution efforts low-key and your spiritual mind on the right path a verse or two apart. Even if the language isn’t anywhere near as transporting as when Fishscale jumped from dope tales to love songs to underwater revelations, there are at least hidden dimensions under the all-too-matter-of-fact statements.

The lackluster lines are even more of a letdown given the strength of the music. BADBADNOTGOOD’s arrangements are the most immersive yet in this three-album run of live-band Ghostface. The core trio leans towards RZA’s old Morricone-via-Stax waypoints here and there, then warps them into something more enigmatic and heated—basslines and drums creep and skulk instead of just booming, string arrangements recall the late '60s heyday of David Axelrod turning the Wall of Sound into cresting liquid waves. The instrumental version of this album is going to make a lot of SoundCloud-bound demo-tapers lose their minds trying to get their turns in.

Make no mistake: The presence of BADBADNOTGOOD and some show-stealing guest verses are reason enough to face the prospect of Ghostface in second gear. There isn’t even that much to weather, what with the whole record being all of 33 minutes, with only nine tracks actually featuring a Ghostface verse. Both the scant material and under-inspired lyricism are symptoms of the same problem: a dearth of unexpected ideas from an MC once seemingly capable of endless ones. Ghost’s done worse, but he used to be so excitingly unpredictable. Now you pretty much know what you’re going to get.