Last summer, when I first heard BADBADNOTGOOD and Ghostface Killah‘s collaborative single and instrumental B-side, I was inspired, invigorated, anxious for the future. The aesthetic significance of an all-white Canadian jazz trio making music with a prolific hip-hop heavyweight like Ghostface cannot be understated. It speaks to a subtle shift that’s steadily propagated in contemporary hip-hop, an audacious attempt at redefining sonic and aesthetic structures usually associated with the genre. By and large, this redefinition is cyclical: It pulls from optimal aural artifacts, fashioning ingenuity from a mosaic of already established musical gestures, which is essentially how hip-hop has operated since its initial inception. Even his last record, The Revelations-produced 36 Seasons (released just two months prior), often sourced R&B and doo wop oldies like The Cruisers’ “I Love You So.” But on Sour Soul, rather than sampling or re-appropriating the past, the grooving mysticism of 1970s soul is imagined from scratch.
It seems somehow irresponsible to typecast BBNG as jazz. BBNG and BBNG2, their first two unofficial releases featuring covers of James Blake and Nas, were informed by Dilla-era instrumentals and funk-heavy neo-soul in addition to their penchant for groove-savvy free jazz. More recently, as evidenced by their absurdly good re-interpretation of Future Islands‘ “Waiting On You,” the trio have moved beyond the envelope-pushing progressive jazz of last year’s III to more corporeal realms of soul and funk. Sour Soul does much to capture this new essence, its arrangements exuding an elegance and sophistication practically unheard of in modern hip-hop.
But what makes this record so extraordinary is the artful tension that’s perpetuated between the production and Ghostface Killah’s dexterous, nearly unassailable flow. There’s a weight behind his words, a lugubrious seriousness indicated not by the shrewd timbre of his voice but the way it rubs against BBNG’s serene, percolated soul. Take “Tones Rap,” for instance. The initially released instrumental digs deep, struts and saunters with a kind of sublime ease. But once coupled with vocals, this track becomes something else entirely, an isolated state of woozy, inebriated mourning, especially when Ghostface articulates, “Pimpin’ ain’t easy, but it sure is fun.”
Both musically and lyrically, BBNG have reinvigorated the genuine artistry of Ghostface. The MC maintains his tradition of inexplicable thematic oddities, like the line in “Sour Soul,” where he confesses, “I’ve seen spaceship fly out the back of a truck.” But generally, throughout the record’s twelve tracks, he adopts the role of mentor, lending spiritual and physical guidance. It’s most emphasized on B-side cuts “Nuggets of Wisdom” and “Food,” (“You no good then just practice, cause practice makes perfect,” he preaches on the former, “Stop burying your lies and bring the truth to the surface”), but its sentiments are surprisingly manifest during Danny Brown’s guest verse on “Six Degrees.” “Smoking on chronic feeling like Nostradamus/ See, dying ain’t your future, nigga I promise,” intones Brown. His surly squawk is especially gruff when he says “future,” inspiring a clear vision of hope that’s entirely distinct from the media-constructed narratives that portray young black men as destined for premature demise. As such, it’s easy to hear Sour Soul as a protest album, of sorts, one that answers more questions than it poses, offering feasible responses and solutions to our current atmosphere of social and political turmoil.
Stream Sour Soul below.