Sour Soul: The Art of Collaboration

 Artwork by Mike Gilchrist

Artwork by Mike Gilchrist

by Liam Thomas

Released in early 2015, Sour Soul was the collaborative effort between Canadian jazz revisionists BadBadNotGood and Wu-Tang Clan legend Ghostface Killah. While producers teaming up with an artist for the span of an entire project is becoming a less popular mode of collaboration, Sour Soul is a perfect example of why creative partnerships are an essential component of any rap project. At the time of the project’s release, BadBadNotGood and Ghostface Killah were in similar creative lanes, trying to establish and re-establish their respective careers. In the years preceding Sour Soul, BBNG had received widespread acclaim for their jazzy live covers of popular hip-hop beats that did justice to artists like Q-tip and MF DOOM However, the Toronto jazz quartet had a relatively limited catalog of releases containing beats they had entirely composed themselves (save for 2014’s excellent III). On the other hand, after citing a lack of creative control as his reason for leaving Def Jam Recordings in 2012, the legendary Ghostface Killah was witnessing a brief flash of stagnation in his career.

The next few years saw Ghostface announce a series of still unreleased projects, which included a sequel to his excellent Supreme Clientele and a collaborative project with MF DOOM. Regardless, Ghostface Killah delivered the excellent 36 Seasons in early 2014, taking the first step towards re-establishing himself as a figure in the contemporary rap landscape. In 2015, both Ghostface and the members of BadBadNotGood were in the same position; Both acts were widely recognized and celebrated by critics and fans alike, but they were both only beginning to pick up creative momentum at the time. With Ghostface Killah finally free of label suffocation and BBNG attempting to craft more projects with original compositions, the two coming together to create Sour Soul is almost serendipitous. The collaboration that followed should serve as a blueprint for how producers and vocalists can expand upon and elevate each other’s work.

Sour Soul works so well due to two things in particular: The creative relationship between the music of both acts, and the accommodations they both make for each other on the record. BadBadNotGood released a number of excellent Wu-Tang Clan instrumental covers near the beginning of their career, and the trio has always been fans of the artists they now find themselves producing for. The production they offered on Sour Soul was so precisely tailored to fit Ghostface’s flow and style, it was immediately obvious that the members of BBNG were deeply familiar with his musical repertoire. Additionally, the production on a number of Ghostface Killah’s early records was heavily inspired by jazz, soul, and R&B of the 60’s and 70’s. These artists also serve as an enormous point of inspiration for the members of BadBadNotGood, resulting in a stylistic connection between the auditory palette of both acts.

Nevertheless, the shared artistic influences of Ghostface and BadBadNotGood are only a part of what makes their collaboration work so seamlessly. On Sour Soul, both BBNG and Ghostface Killah were clearly making subtle yet undeniably important tweaks to their sounds, all in the interest of accommodating the other party. Alexander Sowinski, who’s awe-inspiring drum contributions were a definitive characteristic of BBNG’s past records, found himself scaling back his typically convulsive drumwork to give Ghostface more room to breathe. This choice left Sour Soul feeling less cluttered and busy than previous BBNG albums and gave Ghostface Killah space to spit some of the most targeted bars of his post-Wu-Tang clan career. To the same effect, Ghostface reappropriated his customarily rapid delivery on Sour Soul by adhering to the sauntering tone of the BadBadNotGood instrumentals, while still remaining true to his recognizable sound. On the standout track “Tone’s Rap,” Ghostface approached the delicate, jazzy electro beat with all of his usual aggression, but almost in the tempo of a slam poet. The result of this pacing alteration in Ghostface’s flow is striking; It separates Sour Soul artistically from any other project in his discography. Even though it was undeniably Ghostface Killah rapping throughout Sour Soul, he shifted and evolved his style to accommodate BBNG’s beats.  

The instrumentals BadBadNotGood provided were so uniquely indicative of their own original sound and lived up to the potential displayed on 2014’s III. Not only did they manage to craft 12 original live instrumental beats that expanded upon their sound as a group, but they directly adhered to the musical influences that they shared with Ghostface Killah in the production of the record. By drawing from both the 60’s soul-sampled across Ghostface’s solo projects and the sinister tone of his work with the Wu-Tang Clan, BBNG seamlessly blended their instrumental style with the auditory palette of Ghostface’s entire discography. This in turn afforded Ghostface Killah the necessary space to diverge from his typical style and experiment creatively, something he had not been able to do in prior years of label suffocation. The result is remarkable, with Ghostface twisting and contorting his flows to match the eccentricities of his collaborators. When Sour Soul was recorded, both Ghostface Killah and BadBadNotGood existed in similar creative spaces, took influence from similar music, and worked to accommodate and improve upon their respective sounds. The resulting album highlights what is best about both artists while still feeling completely like its own entity, and should serve as an outstanding example of artistic collaboration for musicians everywhere.

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