Photo courtesy of Lex Records
Gangster rap and jazz could not sound more different if they tried. One genre immortalizes displays of inner-city crime over thumping bass-driven beats, while the other prides itself on free-spirited improvisation over swooping sax lines and virtuoso drumming. If you can’t figure out which is which then a serious existential life evaluation is in order. However, just because two ingredients are different does not mean they can’t be mixed, and pleasure is often derived from contrast.
Ghostface Killah and BADBADNOTGOOD (BBNG) go together like salt and caramel on their new collaborative album Sour Soul, which dropped on Feb. 16. BBNG are a post-bop trio hailing from Toronto, Canada and winners of the Most Ironic and Internet-y Sounding Hipster Band in the Universe Award. Post-bop is a form of jazz usually played in a small ensemble, combing influences from hard bop, modal jazz, avant-garde, and free jazz without sounding too much like any of the former. So it’s pretty open to interpretation. BBNG’s sound leans towards hip-hop, which has led to collaborations with artists like Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, and, most recently, Ghostface Killah.
Ghostface Killah is one of the most notable members of the legendary gangster hip hop collective Wu Tang Clan, hailing from Staten Island, N. Y. Wu Tang Clan are one of the most influential hip hop groups of all time, inspiring everyone from Kanye West to Nas to a certain Bay Area ice cream sandwich chain. Without Ghostface Killah, hip hop would be a very different, and noticeably tamer, genre.
On Sour Soul, BBNG emulates the sound of Ghost’s previous backing bands from his solo career with a unique personal twist, marked by their intricate trademark bass and piano lines supported by a ride cymbal-driven backbeat. Guitar parts were included in almost all of the songs, and horn parts in some, helping them achieve a balanced, full sound. BBNG maintain an air of laid-back jazzy intrigue. Their sound would be equally appropriate for the background music in a smoky nightclub or a detective noir movie from the 1940s. Each instrument’s part has its complexities, but the bandmates meld masterfully and never outshine Ghostface or each other. The resulting sound is a gentle succession of riffs, repeated until the flow of the notes are ingrained in the listener’s mind. A cool equilibrium is struck between bareness and a smooth, but overwhelming, cacophony.
Ghostface Killah provides the album’s narrative direction with rhymes rich in wordplay, philosophical meaning, and gangster boasts radiating ridiculous levels of bravado. Ghost’s flow is fast-paced and as rough as the streets he was raised on. His verses touch on everything from tales of making and selling drugs to solid advice for enjoying life and making the most of your criminal career. Other lines are hilarious (“My clan is Braveheart/y’all move like Paul Blarts/sloppy”), sometimes to the point of absurdity (“With the strength of ten midgets I’ma murder you son”). Others are there to add to the descriptive imagery typical of Ghostface’s music (“The velvet shirt is crush/The diamonds in my teeth are flush/A fly nigga/Cognac sipper, keep a blade at the tip of my cane for snakes that slither”). Sour Soul differs from Ghostface’s past two albums in its lack of an overarching narrative plot line, though the New York rapper does indulge in his love of storytelling. However, he replaces much of the storytelling with insightful vignettes (“I used to rob and steal, now I make food for thought,” “Don’t walk barefooted through the grass/Cause that’s where the snake strikes”) and positive life advice promoting self-improvement, a rare feature for a gangster rap album.
Overall, Sour Soul is an excellently paced collaboration between two very different artists from two very different genres. It is a refreshing break from the electronic music-driven production of most modern hip hop releases and a reminder of how the genre originally sounded. BADBADNOTGOOD and Ghostface Killah have released the ultimate modern take on old school jazz rap, and an already solid contender for this year’s best underground music album.