The last couple of years have been nothing short of productive for Ghostface Killah. Last year saw him release the fantastic Fishscale and its companion release More Fish. The latter was more of a mix tape, used to put Ghostface’s entourage, the Theodore Unit, on display in the wake of Fishscale‘s success. Fishscale was so successful because it was so big and demanding as an album. It was bigger than any previous release and built on the buzz that The Pretty Toney Album created. Of course, those who touted The Pretty Toney Album as a comeback were missing what Ghostface was doing for a couple years there, and these days he seems to know it. And, with The Big Doe Rehab, Ghostface offers a proper follow-up to Fishscale, and in a lot of ways outdoes himself.
The new record isn’t nearly as expansive as Fishscale, and that is a good thing. As good as that album was, it sounded like Ghostface knew how good it was. That he thought it could go on forever. And while it’s got the best song he’s ever done—“Shakey Dog”—it’s also full of skits and a little long on songs that threaten to run together late in the album. But, with The Big Doe Rehab, Ghostface Killah has married the big sound of Fishscale with the immediate rawness of The Pretty Toney Album while managing to leave the excess behind.
The results are tight and constantly successful. The album mostly avoids skits—excusing an extortion scene that frames the album, and a recording of one of Ghostface’s on-stage rants—and focuses on the songs. The guest spots here are nearly all solid, with Method Man shining particularly bright, and they serve as a nice counterpoint to Ghostface’s rapid-fire snarl.
“Toney Sigel A.K.A. The Barrel Brothers”, the first proper song, announces itself with authority, as Ghostface spits quick and fierce yet another rhyme daring anyone to step to him over a fuzzed out guitar riff and dirty beat. Beanie Sigel splits the song with him and builds up such a momentum that the song has to cut out before he’s done just to keep things manageable. The song leads into “Yolanda’s House”, a crime/sex tale Ghostface spins with Method Man that is as funny as it is disturbing. Next up is the album’s lead single “We Celebrate”, which finds Ghostface in party mode, ready to drink hard, eyeball women, and celebrate hip-hop.
The album sounds all over the place at the outset, but as the album moves along on its disparate way, a big picture does start to come together. In a lot of ways, Ghostface is using The Big Doe Rehab to try and simultaneously celebrate hip-hop culture, while also coming to terms with it. The album goes back and forth between parties and violence, between hubris and humility, between the streets and the studio. And while at first a song like “Walk Around”—a harrowing song which finds Ghostface’s narrator responding viscerally to having killed someone—sounds undercut by a who-gives-a-fuck anthem like “Supa GFK”, somehow the two poles start to make connections.
What makes the album so interesting, and so damn smart, is that it finds Ghostface reveling in hip-hop music while he tries to figure out the culture around it. He paints a picture of a paradox built into a culture that can make people embrace the things that can destroy them. There’s an implication when we hear Ghostface bragging about drugs or violence, that somewhere along the line these things became a part of his music he couldn’t take out if he wanted, and while some of that comes from institutional problems, Ghostface is clearly concern here about his place in that argument. He offers no answers, but instead shows the culture from all sides. From the repentant (“I’ll Die for You”) to the unapologetically violent (“Shakey Dog Starring Lolita”) to the celebratory (“We Celebrate”). But what unites it all is a very real frustration, one that has always been at the heart of the best and most honest hip-hop.
The Big Doe Rehab succeeds because it is an album unafraid to show kinks in its armor. Ghostface is always proud on record, and he holds onto that here, but not without letting us past the pride every once in a while, to see an artist that was always brilliant and full of energy finding just the right amount of focus as he hits what could turn out to be his most furtive years. More than that, he’s challenging hip-hop here, and 2009 will show just how hip-hop responds.
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// Notes from the Road
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