Posted on March 6th, 2015 (12:00 pm) by Matt LaBarbera

No stranger to collaborating with hip hop musicians, BADBADNOTGOOD’s partnership with Ghostface Killah is not a surprising move at all. With Ghost’s previous few albums, the Adrian Younge production of 12 Reasons to Die, and The Revelations-backed 36 Seasons, he’s been on a bit of a streak pulling through different styles with different artists. From giallo horror synths, to spooky soul, and now to the lounge-noir jazz of BBNG, Ghostface Killah has been tracking through dark territories, but always guided. For this latest excursion, Sour Soul, it’s hard to imagine better escorts than Toronto trio BADBADNOTGOOD, who have been developing a twilit, beat-driven style over three full-length releases, including one from last year. It actually sounds like a bit of dream; a critically regarded jazz combo laying down tracks for one of rap’s greatest storytellers. On paper, it promises to be a dense, cinematic rap album, an instant classic. However, as often happens with dream collaborations such as these, what’s cut into the wax is far removed from what was written in the proposal. Sour Soul, instead of being an example of two dynamic artists building off of each other, is an album marred by a lethargy, both on instrumentals and the raps above them.

One of the major advantages of developing a rap album with a live band is the potential for interplay. Rapping over beats that someone emailed from the other side of the country leaves out the potential for any real progression or extemporizing in flow or feeling. With a live band, you’re handed a bespoke beat, a match to the flow and mood of the verses, creating, ideally, a track where the vocals and music are embedded within in each other in an organic way. Unfortunately, such an intertwining is not the primary mode of production here. For the most part, the verses end quick (the whole album runs less than thirty-three minutes), and the trio falls back into thin instrumental passages to close the time.

The title track is marked by a somber and humorless backing section (a surprise from a group that had a Legend of Zelda medley on their first album), and a couple of tepid verses from Ghostface, who makes an inexplicable Paul Blart: Mall Cop reference, as well as the uninspired, “smoking rags on the list like Craig.” He ends the cut by claiming that he’s, “got [his] swagger back and all that,” but if the previous two minutes were any indication, he’s lost a little something. “Tone’s Rap” just further gestures to what a waste of time this whole effort seems to be. Ghost’s Pretty Tone persona gives a very brief accounting of the struggles and joys of a pimp, but it’s an empty, and even awkward, verse as he trips over one of Sowinski's drum rolls while delivering a joke. It’s supported by a saturnine groove, certainly missing something. There’s no energy, no sleaze, just Ghost spewing over humming bass and clicking snares. Cuts like these lead one to think the production environment was not a fun one. It’s obvious that both artists have a lot more to offer, but they’ve had to lop off a fair amount of attitude and energy to accomplish this collaboration. BBNG comes off as mediocre library jazz-funk, the kind of thing you might pull out of a dusty sleeve from the '70s, or a soundtrack to a forgotten Italian educational TV series.

It’s not all bad, however. There are a few redeeming moments on both the musical and verbal frontiers. Interestingly enough, these are all tracks with other featured artists, suggesting that maybe Ghostface was a little lonely on the mic. “Gunshowers” has a dusty guitar line opening, lending a bit of a Morricone vibe that is a nice shake up from the wet asphalt of the rest of the album. Elzhi gives a great verse, moving well with BBNG’s beat and delivering much better wordplay than Ghost: “Cuz every meek head that speak street cred ain’t bangin heat lead / And probably cut like sweet bread when in they sheets bread.” Tree, divorced from his familiar soul-trap setting, rasps through “Street Knowledge,” talking about the summertime warzone of Chicago, providing a suitable epigraph for one of Ghost’s more competent verses, but the production here is pretty bland and only serviceable. Where the real success on this album lies is the next cut, “Ray Gun,” where some much needed energy is injected into both BBNG and Ghostface as they square off against DOOM. The two superhuman personas join forces and destroy anyone who presumes to defy them. Ghost and DOOM both deliver great verses that actually have some depth in narrative and play. The comic book motif isn’t constrained to the rappers, but the instrumental jumps into the fray with the duo, providing the warm, vintage sound DOOM usually works with. It’s a great cut that even extends after the verses into this meaty funk, decked out with pulpy horns. The album closer, "Experience," which picks up on the opening cut, demonstrates how much fun BBNG are capable of having, creating a rollicking spy thriller score.

There’s a lot of danger in collaboration. It’s a bit of an alchemical experiment, bringing together two unlike elements to create something sublime, greater than either. Sometimes you get the Philosopher’s Stone, and other times the whole thing just blows up in your face. Thankfully, Sour Soul is not the latter, but it’s also far from the former. Both Ghostface Killah and BADBADNOTGOOD had to give up a great deal to make this collaboration come together. BADBADNOTGOOD’s density and energy was given up to accommodate someone rapping over it and Ghostface lost some of his poise and presence, stumbling over these instrumentals (although, it is difficult to find an excuse for some of the poor writing). What each artist sacrificed was far more than what was actually gained, and the result is unsurprisingly lukewarm. The album maintains an uncertain atmosphere, as if the two components just didn’t understand each other and didn’t want to step on toes. Sour Soul has its moments, but they never crystallize into a meaningful and coherent approach. All in all, it’s okay, okay, not great.

Track List:

  1. Mono
  2. Sour Soul
  3. Six Degrees (featuring Danny Brown)
  4. Gunshowers (featuring Elzhi)
  5. Stark's Reality
  6. Tone's Rap
  7. Mind Playing Tricks
  8. Street Knowledge (featuring Tree)
  9. Ray Gun (featuring DOOM)
  10. Nuggets of Wisdom
  11. Food
  12. Experience
BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul Review
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Our Rating

65 / 100
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