Courtesy of Lex Records
Courtesy of Lex Records

Ghostface Killah and Toronto jazz band BadBadNotGood’s (BBNG) collaborative album, “Sour Soul,” is a tour de force of gritty hip-hop and smooth jazz. This LP is Ghostface’s third album rapping over live instruments, following “36 Seasons,” and “12 Reasons to Die.” Unfortunately, the album gets bogged down at times by Ghostface Killah’s lyrics, which come off as dated and irrelevant. However, despite its lyrical limitations, “Sour Soul” provides an interesting development in the New York emcees’ use of instrumentals to create tension.

The album balances the grittiness of Ghostface’s flow and heavy lyrics with the rhythmic jazz that BBNG is renowned for. The main single, “Gunshowers” embodies this tension perfectly — beginning with a smooth guitar riff that holds a steady rhythm at a slower tempo, with the drums accenting the lead guitar. Ghostface cuts against this steady rhythm with the speed and force of his delivery, as well as the violence of his lyrics. He jumps into the fray in the second bar, exclaiming, “Simple minds get blown / shattered into pieces / my thesis is thick / like the book of Eli.”

In a sense, this tension between the instrumentals and the rapping provides a thematic dimension to the album. Traditionally, jazz rap and gangsta rap have been perceived as two major strands completely opposed to each other. Jazz rap is often more rhythmic than Gangsta rap and is given its fullest expression by groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, whereas gangsta rap is embodied by N.W.A, Wu Tang Clan and Tupac. This LP flies in the face of this distinction, coherently putting together the best elements of both strands of hip-hop to craft a vibrant album.

Moreover, the jazz element of “Sour Soul” is no mere backdrop. In fact, BBNG’s jazz is truly distinct, appearing quite well on its own in three instrumental tracks throughout the album. The tracks, “Mono” and “Experience,” which respectively begin and end the album, begin identically. Both start with the same, climbing bass notes interpolated with the sound of a hi-hat in the beginning of each bar. However, each of these songs move in different directions as the songs progress, in the improvisatory spirit of jazz. In many ways, BBNG’s instrumentals are the strongest part of the album.

While Ghostface retains the force of his signature delivery style, his lyrics don’t always pull through. For example, on the title song “Sour Soul,” Ghostface says, “My clan is Braveheart, y’all move like Paul Blarts.” The line, to be sure, falls flat, and is unfortunately not the only instance where this is so. Despite this, the cameos by artists such as underground legend MF Doom and rapper Danny Brown do much to salvage the floundering lyrics.

Even with its faults, the album works just because of the sheer originality of the concept. “Sour Soul” might be one of the more accomplished solo albums by the venerable hip-hop legend, as well as the breakout album for the talented jazz trio BadBadNotGood.

Rating: 4 stars