A Violent New Continent
“I want him to watch me strangle his daughter/Butcher his babies.” This couplet, shouted a cappella mid-way through Ghostface Killah and Adrian Younge’s sequel to 2013’s Twelve Reasons to Die, functions as a sort of vision statement for the project. While Ghostface and partner-in-crime Wu Raekwon (who shares microphone duties on almost half of Twelve Reasons to Die II) have never shied from hardboiled depictions of violence, rarely have their words come across so cold and ogrish. Spit atop Younge’s flawless reinterpretation of the classic Wu-Tang production aesthetic, Twelve Reasons To Die II is a bleak, nihilistic affair; as intoxicating as it is unsettling.
Atop live breakbeats, descending scales and diminished chord stabs, ungrounded electricity crackles like dying nerve endings on opener “Powerful One.” Elsewhere, Bilal’s spectral voice sings of “Resurrection Mornings” through layers of distortion and reverb. Adrian Younge has been catching much-deserved acclaim as a producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist, and here he threads together strands of Ennio Morricone, David Axelrod and his mentor RZA into stark aural tapestries. He masterfully reinvigorates sounds long-pronounced dead by an eternally fickle mainstream, further proving there is still much to make of cloudy mid-’90s boom-bap.
Like its predecessor, Twelve Reasons to Die II follows an album-long narrative, and similarly, the story’s specifics are largely inconsequential. Raekwon takes on the role of mobster Lester Kane, who summons the murderous wraith Ghostface (from a stack of cursed vinyl, naturally) to exact revenge on those who murdered his loved ones. But just as Raymond Chandler’s plots operated primarily as vehicle for his hallucinatory prose, Twelve Reasons to Die II‘s story serves as little more than a frame for the emcees’ more grisly poetic inclinations.
As mentioned before, Raekwon is just as significant a presence as Twelve Reasons to Die II‘s top-billed star, and actually performs much of the record’s lyrical heavy lifting. Meanwhile, Ghostface hovers in the background, almost omniscient — a malevolent poltergeist ranting about killing families, wanting to “brutalize and torture” and “cause nothing but harm.” His more ghastly lines border on torture porn (particularly some instances of horrifically casual misogyny), but are written and delivered in such a matter-of-fact deadpan to almost suggest boredom. The effect is incredibly disturbing, implying bloodlust deadened by routine — though the descriptions are no less abominable.
When Raekwon nonchalantly references journalists beheaded by ISIS (“Return of the Savage”), or Ghostface describes how he’ll“hang a man by his necklace/ Then mail it to his family with blood still on it” (“King of New York”), the emcees evoke not only an excessively violent landscape, but one exhausted and numbed by sustained, normalized atrocity. Whereas earlier Wu-Tang releases tinted such horrors with shades of mourning, the violence portrayed here is devoid of pathos — just an end unto itself.
Cloaked in such a degree of darkness and negativity (even when the record descends into self-parody on closer “Life’s A Rebirth,” with the title character sacrificing the soul of his son in order to resurrect himself), Twelve Reasons To Die II can be a challenging listen. This is Ghostface Killah’s take on horror (a genre he apparently has little interest in), spiritually more in sync with A Serbian Film or the game Manhunt than Supreme Clientele. The result is both captivating and off-putting, filled with numerous rewards for those willing to approach the record on its own terms.