The members of Wu-Tang Clan have always made songs that sort of play out like the soundtrack for some NYC-meets-Tokyo urban Kung Fu flick, but with 12 Reasons To Die II, Ghostface and company take the concept record route to develop a fine-tuned project. 

Following in the footsteps of 12 Reasons To Die and 36 Seasons, the record melts live band production with Mafioso tales, creating a sort of Scorsese vibe of a hip-hop LP. It’s easy enough to follow along, so here’s the narrative: Tone Starks (Ghostface Killah) is an enforcer for the DeLuca crime family and Raekwon is a rising gangster named Lester Kane. RZA, with his unmistakable voice, narrates some of the tale… 

"As the Ghostface Killah and the infamous gangster Lester Kane came face to face for the first time, they reflect on the violent events that forced their paths to cross. A black crime family led by Lester Kane has made a violent push for supremacy against the surviving member of the Deluca clan, now residing in New York City. In attempt to thwart his adversary advances, Luther Luca, the head of the Deluca clan, guns down members of the Kane syndicate, as well as Lester's wife and son. The war escalates. In one fatal night, Lester and his men rob one of the Deluca clan social clubs, discovering 12 vinyl records hidden within a safe."

TL;DR: Tone Starks (Ghost) is the protagonist, Lester Kane (Raekwon) is the angry antagonist looking to avenge the death of his wife and son and become NYC’s ultimate mob boss.

The two MCs have no shortage of history and chemistry together, in real life. From the glory days of Only Built For Cuban Linx and Ironman to present day, Rae and Ghost are one of the most phenomenal one-two punches in hip-hop history. Hearing them go against each other is fun for the listener, and the verses are crystal clear that the concept record isn’t too heady for a casual listen.

It’s nice to hear RZA and Raekwon on a project that seems to flex the strong suits of both parties. Rae was one of the more vocal critics of Wu-Tang’s last effort, going as far as to say, "I would be the first one to say that we cannot leave everything in RZA’s hand no more." If you pin this record against A Better Tomorrow, it would appear that Rae is correct. This is way more Wu-Tang than gimmicky limited releases and the experimental style found on that LP.

But Rae isn’t completely innocent in the Clan’s decline of raw material in this decade. Fly International Luxurious Art was hardly full of lyrical darts, as some may wish from the Wu-Tang and their members. It’s unfortunate to pigeonhole the Clan into their Kung Fu/hip-hop hybrids, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? They pioneered the style, of which hundreds (if not thousands) have emulated, and perfected it over the years. Ghostface and RZA, who collaborate on the 12 Reasons to Die series, clearly understand that, because the sequel is living up to the hype of the original, maybe even surpassing it.

The sound on 12 Reasons to Die II follows the vibe Ghostface has been on for the past few years. If you’re new to Ghostface Killah, you may think he’s the bandleader of a Roots-esque group. Both albums from this series, 36 Seasons and Sour Soul all provide soulful, organic production that is more similar to Menahan Street Band, El Michels Affair or The Expressions than anything you hear attached to producer credits. The instrumentals are so good, in fact, that you can listen to them sans-lyrics on the Deluxe version of the record.

The album is along the same lines as previous releases, but works to distinguish itself through top-notch features and perhaps the best linear storyline we’ve seen out of any of these conceptual records. Rapper of the minute Vince Staples provides a killer feature on "Get the Money" and even stays in character. He’s a loyal henchman of Lester Kane, and his verse is not only a sign that Ghost is capable of collaborating with rising stars of today, but also that his vision is one they can adapt to.

The plot thickens on the "Death’s Invitation Interlude," when we find out that Logan, the "bitch that set him up to be killed" actually birthed Starks’ baby. Lester Kane kidnaps them, which naturally infuriates Ghostface Killah, who goes a capella on the next track to heighten the intensity:

"Tell Lu I got his grandson and daughter
And I ain't lookin for no ransom
I want revenge, I want blood, I want his head on a rug!
I want him to watch me strangle his daughter
Butcher his babies, attack pits foamin out the mouth with rabies!
M-80s stuffed in his ass cause bodily harm
This is just the fuckin tip of the storm!
Tell him to come! Tell him we need to speak man to mush!
As soon as he step in the building..

What follows is a lyrical onslaught from some members of NYC’s underground, and a pretty violent boiling point in the story. Scarub, Lyrics Born and Chino XL are insane on the beat as they describe a bloody scene.

Rae and Ghost end up forming an alliance to take out the Delucas. They duet on "Resurrection Morning," proving that they’re still at their best when together, just like back in the mid '90s. Bilal provides some trippy vocals, clearly still buzzing from his To Pimp A Butterfly sessions. There’s some hard-to-follow changes that take place in the end, but after a few listens you should be able to follow along for the album’s intense conclusion, which leaves room for a part III to be released in the future… 

"This is not the last we'll ever hear of Tony Starks
Actuality, this is a new beginning
Tony Starks was once a man, and became a demon
But now lives again, in the flesh and blood
Of the Ghostface Killah"

Ghost did it again. Amidst one of his most prolific periods ever, he releases another mafia-tinged LP jam-packed full of live band production and violent tales of crime life. On Twelve Reasons to Die II, he even gets his old pal Raekwon back on track after that FILA blunder, and allows RZA to play narrator for a fantastic story. Now all we need are some visuals…