I’ll be honest here: I’m not big on hip hop. Sure, there’s a handful of albums from the genre I do enjoy, but it’s largely not my cup of tea. That’s why I’m going to keep this short and let my two colleagues David and Rodrigo do most of the talking today. But even I know how much of a buzz surrounded Sour Soul back in 2015, and how could I not? I mean c’mon – legendary Wu-Tang Clan MC Ghostface Killah enlisting modern jazz wunderkinder BadBadNotGood as his backing band? That’s enough to make any music lover salivate, from hardened hip hop heads down to complete outsiders.
Rodrigo Torres Pinelli
Two months into writing for Everything Is Noise, my time has come to debut in this feature. Fortunately, and coincidentally perhaps, this week’s album takes me back to the starting steps of my ‘I listen to everything‘ music taste.
I first came to notice BadBadNotGood’s work in 2015 while studying at music school. At the time, my musical taste dwelled in the profound caverns of metal and its derivatives, while sometimes taking a trip to sunny (cheesy) pop-punk. Hence, when I got to meet my fellow classmates, the diversity produced tons of record lists as we exchanged our favorite albums. Naturally, it was way more what I received than what I had to offer, considering the jazz-head bias every music school handles. “Kaleidoscope” off III was the firsttrack I got a hold of, and immediately fell for that Fender Rhodes-ish piano line. That day when I got home, I checked their latest album, Sour Soul. All of a sudden, there was someone referred to as Ghostface Killah dropping verses over the songs… not what I expected, but bring it on.
Given my early tastes, a jazz-oriented hip-hop record represented the clash of two recently discovered worlds, which enlarged my teenage curiosity. On the one hand, familiarizing with the aesthetics of BBNG’s tracks nurtured the study of the genre. On the other, Sour Soul was my first encounter with an MC aside from Eminem. Probably, my fellow authors will offer a deeper insight into Ghostface’s trajectory before the collaboration with the Canadian group.
My personal favorite is “Mind Playing Tricks”. It’s a banger – straightforward, groovy. The hook is so catchy that it makes me want to repeat the song for weeks. The transparent imagery built through Ghostface’s verses left me astonished. Once again, it triggered my curiosity beyond the extents imaginable at the time. What blew my mind the most was the blend of these worlds yielding a monster album that would benefit all the parties involved.
If it wasn’t for Sour Soul, I wouldn’t have reached Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp a Butterfly, or Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, or D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, or even the Wu-Tang stuff. For that, and for being one of the coolest collabs, it will be always an iconic record in my life.
P.S.: Make sure to spin the instrumental version at least once. You’ll perceive all the nuances that BBNG deliberately composed to make Ghostface’s backing tracks operate smoothly. Who needs samples when you have that?
A couple weeks ago, I was watching a video in the PBS-produced series Sound Field on how hip hop and jazz have influenced each other. Me, being the hip hop fan I am, had a lot of references for prominent jazz samples used in some of my favorite songs. What I lacked was a deep knowledge of hip-hop that uses live jazz instrumentation. Sure, you have Guru’s Jazzmatazz projects, The Roots’ prevalent and dare I say pioneering approach to jazz-backed hip hop, and then you have more modern benefactors of that relationship like Little Simz and, of course, Kendrick Lamar with his monolithic To Pimp A Butterfly.
Back in 2015, though, there was another album that gained a lot of traction, showcasing the unassailable intersection of these two genres in ways that not even To Pimp A Butterfly did. Don’t worry, K.Dot fans – I’m not looking to start a war about which jazz rap album was better. Plus, it’s pretty clear that these two albums are firmly in separate tonal lanes.
The thing with Sour Soul is it’s as much a BADBADNOTGOOD album and a Ghostface Killah album as it is a bona fide collab. What I mean by that is, for as much as they the complement each other and mix together to form a sonic world fit for the many personalities of Ghostface, you can only be a fan of him or a fan of BBNG alone and enjoy it for that fact alone (though fans of the latter might find it easier to listen to the instrumental version of the album which is available on streaming services).
Six years ago, I wasn’t nearly as invested in jazz as I am now. I mean, I still barely know shit about the art, and it’s intimidatingly huge to dip back into its rich history, but you know, personal growth and all that. Soul Soul was one of a few tinderboxes that set up a more profound, fiery interest in the genre beyond that of hip-hop.
Really, I’m glad I got to talk about Ghostface in the context of Wu-Tang Clan first before this. Not only does it save me some time in prefacing the greatness he exudes in hard-bodied hip hop, but it also allows me the ability to call back to the diverse past he’s had between now and then. As a solo artist, Ghostface has created a slew of alter egos with unique, detailed lore through which he can express different emotions, moods, and forge raw lyrical content from the various sects of the urban underbelly with which he’s intimately – fatally – familiar.
It never takes long for him to make a statement, and that doesn’t change with the involvement of smooth-ass jazz. The title track sees Ghostface make some of the most boisterous and braggadocious on the whole record:
‘My clan is Braveheart, y’all move like Paul Blarts
Sloppy, go ‘head and try and stop me if you can
Your casualties of war will get left in the sand
I’m Ironman, a stone-faced killer with a mask
Don’t want the truth, then don’t ask, you couldn’t handle a task
Rigorous, my war face is one that God gave me’
This is all while a veritable opening credits-esque tune plays, just as much in the background as the foreground. Like I said before, this is a BBNG and a Ghostface album – each element shines bright on its own, even as depths of a criminal underworld are dredged up to give us the loose concept for Sour Soul.
The Staten Island rapper sticks to what he knows, perhaps a positive and negative, but when he lords over us as a rich and powerful mafioso-type in Tony Starks (yes, a long-standing reference to Marvel’s Tony Stark – Ghostface is also known as Ironman, note the compounding of words), it’s hard not to see him as all business, no pleasure. Ghostface also rolls out the red carpet for Pretty Toney, a slick-talking pimp whose business is pleasure, managing a stable of women to get his money and keep his life lavish. That’s not exactly a narrative I’m down with personally – I tend to side with Killer Mike on this issue: ‘Not a holy man, but I’m moral in my perverseness/So I support the sex workers unionizing their services.’ Still, it’s hard not to fall for the lush, opulent charm P Tone brings on “Tone’s Rap”:
‘There’s no slack for a pimp in these streets, is you feelin’ me?
Caddy suede is brush
The velvet shirt is crush
The diamonds in my teeth are flush
I’m a fly ni**a
Cognac sipper, keep a blade at the tip of my cane
For snakes that slither’
BBNG take it nice and slow here, concocting a soulful jam not unlike the ones you might hear in a top-notch, ritzy brothel. Not that I’d know or anything…
Much of the album carries an air of paranoia, sleeping with one eye open. Swelling strings, though rarely, smartly used, act as prying eyes behind shoulders, arousing suspicion. Stuttered percussion sounds like feet clapping against cobblestone back roads fleeing from shadowy figures offering death. There’s even a song called “Mind Playing Tricks”, and y’all know I love my Geto Boys references. Soul Soul is a crime drama splashed in noir sensibilities where no heroes exist and the only way out is a body bag; a tale from Gotham City where Batman has been slain and no hope exists. It’s something you may be familiar with if you’ve heard Ghostface’s Twelve Reasons to Die collab albums with Adrian Younge.
Speaking of superheroes, our anti-hero is still afforded some downtime, relatively speaking. “Ray Gun” sees Tony Starks (re)united with rap’s biggest supervillain who we recently learned surprisingly, implausibly died late last year, MF DOOM. Utilizing a vibraphone and what sounds like some light organ, this song is genuinely fun and energetic, capturing the wild personalities of the two lyricists as they play off each other and paint a rowdy night of crime fighting and crime-doing. It’s the hardest pairing of these two characters outside of a comic or Marvel vs. Capcom game.
It can’t be overstated how much the minds meld on this album. From song to song, Ghostface capitalizes strongly on the dreary groove handed to him by BBNG. Some instances had the Canadian trio building music around certain lines provided by Ghostface, a harder endeavor I’m sure, but one the boys handled exceptionally well.
“Six Degrees” has an instrumental quirky enough for guest Danny Brown’s trap house plot, complete with Juice playing on the living room’s flat screen TV, while retaining a tone dark and rugged enough for Ghostface’s pusher man mentality ready to move more keys than a car dealership. Interludes like “Stark’s Reality” wash over you with a lived-in, luxurious jazz sound that’s fit for a Hollywood film. The best song on the album, “Gunshowers”, has wavy, reverb-soaked, drugged-up surf rock guitars and a cleanly-strummed melody that’s just as infectious as any classic jazz sample from hip hop’s golden age. It also has some of the hardest lines courtesy of Detroit’s Elzhi, but it’s these lines from the marquee rapper that always stay with me:
‘My vocab is powerful, spit shit subliminal
Slang therapist, my whole style is criminal
Bugged like Bob Digital, fly visual
Mind, body, and soul; I’m a strong individual
Come through in the final hour, with gun showers
Stand the fuck up like Flav to fight the power
I’m an activist, socialist, deadly-ass poetrist
Supreme Clientele, I’m a goddamn vocalist
My thoughts are so heavy, I could change a generation
The X factor, we puttin’ holes through inflation’
It’s hard to not read Sour Soul as a declaration of presence. Ghostface Killah was over two decades into his illustrious, legendary career by the time the album hit the streets; an old man by hip-hop’s standards. He never saw fit to leave his Wu-Tang roots behind him, referencing the group and its members several times throughout the nine of twelve tracks he raps on here. For Ghostface, Sour Soul’s the eloquent, rib-punching equivalent of standing atop the tallest building in Staten Island and screaming ‘I’m still here, motherfuckers!’
BADBADNOTGOOD were just taking off into prominence themselves with their third album released a year prior. They’d make saxophonist Leland Whitty, who features prominently here, a full-fledged member later in 2016 with the celebratory release of their fourth album, which contains some of their best work yet, in addition to featuring on songs and collaborating with many other artists throughout music’s infinite sonic spectrum.
Sour Soul was big. Maybe not To Pimp A Butterfly big, but big enough to make waves and leave a lasting impression on music fans like myself. This record is often mentioned among Ghostface Killah’s seminal albums like Supreme Clientele, Fishscale, and Ironman as his best work. It helped legitimize BADBADNOTGOOD to a whole new audience of hardcore rap lovers and was another bullseye in the dart board of their burgeoning career. If you’re a fan of either – or, hell, neither – it’s more than worth a trip down in the depths to see what you come away with. Jazz rap is not often this succinct and biting, unabated in power and uncaring to tradition.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Sour Soul? Are you a fan of Ghostface Killah and BadBadNotGood, and if so, what’s your favorite album of theirs, respectively? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!