Everything about the formula for Sour Soul screams instant classic. Toronto trio BadBadNotGood made a name for themselves over the last couple of years via a retro fusion of jazz and instrumental hip-hop. Part of that notoriety came from whip-smart covers of tracks by the likes of Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame, but also from imaginative, expressive originals — the keys/bass/drums trio acting as a younger generation of The Bad Plus, choosing their covers from the hip-hop and electronic canon rather than pop and rock. Pairing the Canadians with Ghostface Killah, a rap legend who excels over soulful, spacy throwback production, would seem to be beyond a no-brainer. And it is, mostly, but the album occasionally leans too far back into their vibe, fading into overly lax, even sleepy territory.
This isn’t the first time BadBadNotGood have collaborated with a prominent hip-hop artist, so it’s not that they’re just not able to play well with others. They’ve got producer credits on tracks from Danny Brown’s Old and the soundtrack to The Man with the Iron Fists, and have also teamed with Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. Similarly, this drowsiness can’t be thrown entirely at Ghost, as he’s still the incredibly fun MC he’s always been, though typically in a blithe grin rather than a smirk.
At times, the fact that these tracks are being produced by live musicians slips away entirely. This isn’t inherently a bad thing; this album isn’t being sold as a gimmick (“It’s Ghostface, but with live music!”), but as a true collaboration. The fact that BadBadNotGood aren’t jumping out in front of the MC to grab the spotlight isn’t surprising. But tracks like “Tone’s Rap” slouch in a way so unassuming that the identity and personality of the performers is all but absent. The keys on that track push past lush and while the rhythm finds pockets in which to flourish, it too often drops back into a lumbering step that negates the fact that they’re being made by live musicians. This is only complicated by the fact that a high proportion of the album runs at a similar laid-back, soulful pace, making it difficult to differentiate between Ghost’s verses.
When BadBadNotGood change up their pace or alter their musical touchstones some, the formula spits out stronger results. The sublime “Gunshowers” takes on the smoky haze of a burning Western ghost town rather than a velvet-draped lounge, and Ghostface and guest Elzhi use that space to double up on their strong-jawed verses. While it might seem counter-intuitive, the emptier production makes the instrumental stand out more, each of Alexander Sowinski’s cymbal fills that much more impactful.
Similarly, the warm, upbeat “Ray Gun” recalls something off of Madvillainy, and that’s not just because DOOM shows up. Sowinski, keyboardist Matthew Tavares, and bassist Chester Hansen are clearly aware both of the material that crate-diggers like Madlib like to pull from and the context within which such a producer builds tracks for collaborative projects like this. Part of that likely has to do with producer Frank Dukes, who made the connection between the young Canadians and the Wu-Tang legend. Dukes, a recent Grammy winner thanks to his work on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, guided the sessions over a reported two-year process.
But the best of these tracks not only makes that two-year process invisible, they stretch into a timeless golden glow. When Ghost lets rip to start a verse with “Back in black, it’s your local superhero from the hood/ Iron Man Starks got the good/ Not that good good like Snoop/ I bullet-proof the coupe,” you know you’re in for some classic shit. DOOM brings his A-game too: “Backpack the ammo/ Warriors said let your flags blow, camo/ These dudes is toys like Wham-O/ Damn though, chipped paint drivin’ on the gravel in the Lambo/ Blammo.” If Ghost and Metal Face ever get around to making that full-length, they could do a lot worse than more productions like this one.
Danny Brown and Tree turn in similarly and predictably strong appearances, but through and through, this is Ghostface’s record, something evidently clear to BadBadNotGood as well, as their personality fades to the background when not providing support to Ghost. The instrumental interludes provide some flash (particularly the horn- and string-laden “Experience”), but long stretches of the album find these talented musicians acting as scaffolding — though impeccably designed and maintained scaffolding. Attempts at the rapper-live band album are risky, and while it has some qualifiers, this one has to be counted as a success. It’d be a wild success, though, if the instrumental half of this collaboration were to take a truly equal share of the spotlight.
Essential Tracks: “Ray Gun”, “Gunshowers”, and “Experience”