Final Rating: 8.7/10
“Go down smooth and steady” is an instruction Wu-Tang affiliate Ghostface Killah gives on the third song Six Degrees (a concept we can all attach ourselves to). That’s the goal with Sour Soul, despite its name (and actual attack on the soul music of the 60’s). BadBadNotGood, with their fascination of hip hop and production (I have absolutely no idea where people this young have such a vast knowledge of how to truly utilize a studio to this extent), have put themselves to the test here. They were masterful before, but on Sour Soul, they have expanded what they can do with production, with working as a team with a vocalist and with minimalism. You hear the various members of BadBadNotGood restrain themselves to stay on the steady hip hop road and not break out in jazz fashion. For a veteran like Ghostface, Sour Soul is not a challenge but an honour to be working with the talented youth of today. For BadBadNotGood, this was the ultimate test. They pass so effortlessly, that they almost seem dangerous; What else do they have up their sleeves, and when will it hit us the most since they have their whole lives ahead of them?
When you can find ways to compare Sour Soul with Madlib and A Tribe Called Quest, you know you can’t have much to say against it. Some of the interludes, like Stark’s Reality and the endings of various songs, sound like they probably came off of Madvillain’s eventual sequel album. They are sinister and almost cartoonishly noir. Soul brings out the joy people have, but there is a lot of skulking on Sour Soul. Every twang sounds more like a threat than a shout of happiness. BadBadNotGood have managed to see how soul positions their layers and melds sounds together, and with that they had enough of a basis to work off of. They add an edge to the music with rolling drums, brooding bass and melodies that jump from behind corners. There are surprises at every turn. That is their knowledge of jazz kicking in, where unpredictability is the key ingredient.
Jazz, with its imaginative scope and a lack of boundaries, is a perfect genre for Ghostface Killah to work with. As he is one of the most creative and illustrious poets in hip hop, the music BadBadNotGood provides almost sounds like his brain’s cup runneth over. Ghostface’s speed, as an effort to pick up all of the cranial spillage, keeps this teetering album standing, as it could take a dive head first at any time. The drive on Sour Soul is infectious, and Ghostface’s stories make the ride more than a scenic audial journey. In Street Knowledge, he stands above newcomer Tree with his arms folded and details the life in the city to him. He trades secrets with rappers who have already defined themselves like DOOM, Danny Brown and Elzhi, as everything has something worthwhile to say. There aren’t any weak links on Sour Soul, and everyone, from BadBadNotGood to all of the rappers and even the session musicians (like the frequent BadBadNotGood collaborator Leland Whitty) work together to make a seamless album.
Sour Soul is so quick that it is over before you know it. You have to remind yourself that there are people playing those complex arrangements: Chester Hansen, Alexander Sowinski and Matthew Tavares. You have to remind yourself before Sour Soul is finished and even after, because it’ll be hard to digest most of the time. It’s even harder to comprehend how musicians so young have achieved so much on this album alone, never mind altogether. These are the high school kids that you always hoped would make it. Here they are, as they conquer the world slowly but furiously.
I remember meeting the gentlemen of BadBadNotGood at Field Trip last year and seeing how wide eyed they still were. They still couldn’t believe that so many people came to see their set (and what a terrific set that was). I can’t imagine how they felt about working with such hip hop greats, never mind how they made an album with such control (that still doesn’t sound artificial). Ghostface Killah speaks heavily on album, but in interviews, he is a fun loving guy that still tries to find the greatest enjoyment in life. BadBadNotGood and Ghostface worked so damn well here because they both love music in all of its forms. They are both still happy to be musicians, both as new artists starting out and as a veteran who has seen it all. Sour Soul happens in a flash, and you’ll find yourself instantly hitting replay. It happens so smoothly that you’ll wonder if you experienced it at all. It is not a sin to keep Sour Soul on repeat to try and absorb as much of it as you can. There is much wisdom to be shared, here, and none of it will leave a bad aftertaste. Instead, you will feel blessed, and what more could you ask for?