Two negotiations defined the performance of Ghostface Killah with Adrian Younge at New York’s Gramercy Theater on Monday night (May 13). One was between the performers and the audience, and the other was between the two men themselves. Ghostface and Younge are touring in support of their recent concept album "Twelve Reasons to Die," on which the venerable and famously imagery obsessed Wu-Tang member spends 12 songs detailing the rise and fall of a 1960’s Italian gangster over instrumentation provided by Younge and his band Venice Dawn. The collaborators have set a high bar for the shows as a sort of visual and interactive companion to the project, but telling a story on record is one thing, and making it compelling for a live, unruly audience is another.
The patience of this crowd had been tested long before Ghostface ever set foot on stage, thanks to an unusually long wait between the advertised start time for the show and the rapper’s actual set time. Doors for the venue opened at 8 PM, and by 10:30 chants of “Wu-Tang” mixed uncomfortably with sporadic boos. At 10:35, the crowd rejoiced when the lights dimmed and Younge appeared, but it was put on edge again when he said he wanted to go on a "journey" that would end at "Twelve Reasons to Die," rather than performing songs from the album immediately.
Younge has earned a reputation in recent years as a torchbearer for a bygone era of soul and funk music thanks to his acclaimed score for the 2009 blaxploitation film "Black Dynamite" and another collaborative album released this year with The Delphonics' William Hart. His band was dressed in appropriately throwback attire, wearing black suits and ties over plain white dress shirts. Younge, alternating between bass and keys, led a set of hard-charging, mostly instrumental psychedelic soul music — replete with propulsive drums and wistful flute — that was reluctantly swallowed by the apparently traditional hip-hop crowd. Then it was finally time for the arrival of Ghostface, and the bandleader leaned into the transition with great fanfare. Members of the band put on white and black masks that were part Phantom of the Opera, part Burkina Faso, while Younge pulled out an oversized storybook, seemingly on loan from Mother Goose. He narrated the prologue of the "Twelve Reasons to Die" story arc, which involves the fallout of protagonist and Ghostface alter-ego Tony Starks with a crime family known as the Delucas.
Whether or not Ghostface was listening to any of this is an open question. The show’s star entered the stage dressed less like a mobster from Italy than a rapper from Staten Island. The schism loomed over the performance for its duration — Younge’s striving for discrete, conceptual integrity and Ghostface’s reflexive leaning on the same stage persona he has deployed successfully over the past two decades. During song breaks, Younge would attempt to move the plot forward with announcements of new developments in the life of Tony Starks, but Ghostface responded with varying degrees of indifference, rocking the crowd with a consistent high energy level and intermittent casual banter.
The night’s best moments were unscripted. During a performance of Wu-Tang classic “Protect Ya Neck,” a skinny, nerdy fan in a Wu-Tang t-shirt who was summoned to rap the verse of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard surprised everyone with a suitably manic and self-confident rendition. Later in the night, special guests including the RZA, William Hart, Masta Killa and Sheek Louch joined Ghostface for performances of their own hits and collaborations from over the years. Their impromptu additions to the setlist, and Ghostface’s unwillingness to stay in character, may not have lived up to the standards of conceptual theater, but the fervent crowd didn’t seem to mind.