Ghostface Killah is all over the hip-hop map these days. The founding member of Wu-Tang Clan has built a small empire for himself, on the foundation of being one of the Wu’s central figures and his first two timeless solo LPs, Ironman and Supreme Clientele. Eighteen years after Ironman dropped, he now boasts more than 10 solo releases and has been teaming up with free jazz beat conductors as of late, on his recent Twelve Reasons to Die collab with soulful producer Adrian Younge and now with young Canadian jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD for Sour Soul.
Forged in Toronto, BADBADNOTGOOD (BBNG) are music school castaways, who went down the path of hip hop instead of a traditional jazz education that didn’t see the brilliance in their unique fusion style. They pick up where Wu-Tang revivalists and eventual Wu collaborators El Michaels Affair left off on their 2009 Wu-Tang jazz tribute, Enter the 37th Chambers. But BBNG differs in that their compositions aren’t an homage, but rather a new shell in which Ghostface and the likes of Danny Brown, MF DOOM, Slum Village’s Elzhi and fellow Canadian MC Tree can operate.
Like Younge’s Twelve Reasons To Die, Sour Soul comes off like the soundtrack to a ‘70s blaxploitation film. “Tone’s Rap” opens with a rattling cymbal, drunken guitar and soft snare setting the stage for Ghostface the pimp, yelling at one of his women and evoking shades of a cognac-soaked, fur-wrapped Rudy Ray Moore. He might as well be stepping into a room a la Moore, proclaiming “Dolomite is my name and fuckin up muthafuckahs is my game!” Fittingly, the track concludes with a “pimpin’ ain’t easy, but it sho is fun,” nod to Big Daddy Kane.
BBNG’s instrumentals set up movements on the album, like on the fully instrumental “Stark’s Reality,” in which a brush-stroke snare drum and ominous strings build into an elaborate orchestral arrangement, never raising the energy level, but rather letting Ghostface handle those responsibilities when the time comes.
Much of Sour Soul is a big Wu-Tang reference, but Ghostface isn’t one to take the easy way out. On the paranoia-inducing “Mind Playing Tricks,” he quips “I have visions of grave diggaz doin the mix for me,” referencing The RZA and Prince Paul’s Gravediggaz project in a clever double entendre, laden with deadly imagery. He cements the track with a polished hook: “Food for thought, spittin’ out verbs for sport/ In these streets you better walk the walk or come up short.” It’s the kind of signature Ghostface hook that sets him apart within the Wu Empire.
While the Danny Brown feature on “Six Degrees” feels slightly out of place and more of a flexing maneuver, MF DOOM crushes his bars and morphs into the group on the single, “Ray Gun.” He leaves us smiling when he sings, “These dudes is toys, like Wham-O.” BBNG’s Alexander Sowinski is a solid jazz drummer, one that plays in the dark shadows and lets Chester Hansen’s stand-up bass talk just as loudly, while letting an imposing tuba guide the outro. It’s a marvelous track that will surely leave fans yearning for Ghostface and MF Doom’s impending DOOMStarks project.
Sour Soul is an evening album, like all good jazz albums should be. The kind you turn on over lamplight or bump on your headphones. Once you do, it’ll transport you to a dark jazz club in your mind, with BBNG led by Matthew Taveras’s deep keys in one corner and Ghostface, the new-age hip-hop poet, on a bar stool spitting his flow.