Though his persona draws from comics, true crime and 42nd Street double features, it can still be pretty easy to see Ghostface Killah as simply a skilled amplification of an actual person. An actual person with of the most unmistakably intense voices and storytelling instincts known to hip-hop, sure, sure, but as much the man who grew up picking roaches out of the cereal box as he is the Wally Champ with the massive eagle gauntlet and Marvel-via-Shaw Brothers mythos. That’s why Twelve Reasons to Die, his collaboration with soundtrack composer and psychedelic-soul maestro Adrian Younge, is such a unique addition to his catalog: it’s an elaborate, conceptual attempt to give the Tony Starks-turned-Ghostface identity a fantastical origin story, set two years before his birth and drenched in a sound that uncannily evokes both Ghost’s fictional and real-life come-up years.
The plot’s over-the-top in the best way possible. Tony Starks, former enforcer for the DeLuca crime family, is set up and killed after going into business for himself in 1968. The method of execution becomes the means for revenge: he’s melted alive in boiling vinyl and his remains are pressed into a dozen LPs that, when played, resurrect him into Ghostface Killah and sets him on a path of bloody payback. The music-as-immortality metaphor’s both obvious and effective, especially in tandem with Younge’s compositions, which draw from many of the same inspirations the RZA used for his early production blueprint (Morricone, Stax, Hi Records), then faithfully but uniquely filters them through live-band instrumentation, complete with Younge’s own penchant for grimy organ riffs. Thanks to the unifying theme — and a no-bullshit focus that runs through power, love, betrayal, payback, and legend with his top-form panache — Ghost sounds more riveting than he has at any point since Fishscale, a presence that’s larger than afterlife.