When Charles Mingus was undergoing psychiatric treatment at Bellevue, he wrote a tune called “All the Things You Could Be If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”. Well, if Mingus were among us today, he’d be jamming to Ghostface Killah, ‘cause one of the things you could be if Freud’s wife were your mom is a funky rhymesayer with an eye for detail, a gift for twisted metaphor, an appreciation of the nasty complexities of violence, and a slippery flow that echoes a slippery identity.
Ghostface Killah (a.k.a. Ironman, a.k.a. Tony Starks, a.k.a. the Wally Champ, ni Dennis Coles) first popped up as a mysterioso phantasm on Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Though his part was brief and his face was disguised in a stocking mask, the Holy Ghost dropped enough quality rhymes to get himself damn near double-billing on Raekwon’s debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Finally unmasked, he unleashed a hard, unpretentious, wordy, clear-eyed persona on his own solo debut Ironman. The album became one of the smash hits of 1996, and critics gushed over his fierce, cock’n'load rhymes and the RZA’s resourceful beats. Racing from the grand-guignol revenge fantasy of “Wildflower” (which set a new standard for hip-hop misogyny) to the hard hard beats of “Daytona 500” (whose funky sample was cribbed from Bob James’s 1974 jam “Nautilus”, the same tune that spiced up Eric B. & Rakim’s “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em” and Onyx’s “Throw Ya Gunz”), the album was the most claustrophobic, funny, righteous, and spellbinding platter yet to be churned out by the Wu-Tang assembly line. His followup, Supreme Clientele—again with the RZA on beats and Raekwon all over the place—adopted a “more is more” approach to hip-hop: denser words, hookier hooks, goofier skits, angrier plots. Still, it was a slightly less absorbing album than Ironman only because it seemed a bit too “normal”. It’s possible he was disappointed too, since his latest joint Bulletproof Wallets is an obvious return to the smoldering old-school beats and psycho narratives of his debut. But the world is utterly changed now, and this album’s striking combination of beauty and squalor reflects it.
When you watch the Wu-Tang Clan perform, you can easily pick out the Holy Ghost: he’s the one doubled over with retro gold jewelry, as if he were beamed onstage from a 1987 time machine. He’s a self-professed old-school soul baby, and he’ll be the first to tell you that the new school is shit. His flow—an urgent boyish enthusiasm undercut with gripping menace—always seems to be slightly faster than his beats. He doesn’t sound rushed, just fast and dangerous, tearing around corners without signaling the turn, daring you to catch up. His eye is cinematic: he spins out vivid, complex street plots about sex, revenge, drugs, and violence with every detail framed and exaggerated. This isn’t to say he wants an audience of voyeurs, just that he knows a story is more interesting when you can see it. Whether he’s fishing roaches out of a cereal box or standing in the shower with soap dripping off his balls, the man knows how to keep it all vivid.
As with all Wu joints, Bulletproof Wallets has generated division among fans. Those who maintain that the album is wack point to the weak-ass single “Never Be the Same Again”, dumb jokes like “Teddy Skit” and “Jealousy”, and the inexcusable absence of recent Ghost jams like “The Sun”, “The Watch”, and “Good Times”. (n.b. “The Sun” is on the track listing, but not on the actual CD). Those who think the album is the Ghost’s tightest to date point to the narrative genius and righteous beats of “Maxine”, “The Hilton” and “Strawberry”, the joyous solidarity of “Theodore”, the musky schooling of “Ghost Showers” and “Love Session”. Me, I’m in the latter camp: the joint is tight, the beats are bumping out the old school (despite the relative absence of the RZA), and the words are a choppy ticker-tape of surprises. Still, Bulletproof Wallets is an odd title for an album that alternates between bugged-out beauty (Wu-Tang style) and nasty squalor.
The album sets off with the majestic Gamble and Huff orchestra (an old O’Jays sample), and a deceptively simple dialogue between the Holy Ghost and the Lord. The man is angry, and he sets the moral tone for the album when he shouts, “niggas gonna fuck around and get their balloon popped!” RZA drops ominous horns and live drums, and we’re all up in “Maxine”, an action-packed dose of crackhead squalor that you’ll have to hear twice, three times before you can parse the lyrics. Dealers kicking down doors, fellatio and hot grits in the bathtub (“Maxine Al Greened him screaming slipped in piss”), and some extreme violence perpetrated by little kids (pouring dye on dealer’s face, sticking a fork in his nuts, tossing him out the window). It’s a tangled morality play, dense with voyeurism, grimy with bitterness. After the defenestration climax (“Black brains splattered / He was dead / And the cops never came”), the RZA sets some churning electric guitars out in the mix, and Ghost ends with the line “Come to my projects and we’ll air you out”.
You’ll also get aired out by “Strawberry” (gang war turning into pornography, with a buzzing blue sample throughout), “The Juks” (choppy war cries, dice throwing, funky Al Chemist beats), and “The Hilton” (hotel battle strategies, swallowing diamonds, “laptop niggas”). Ghostface’s technique in all the nasty dirty tunes is to create a mini-flick, complete with tricky plot, moments of suspense, graphic sex and murder. He’s able to twist his plots in odd directions, juicing every detail, keeping you looking around for meaning. His chaotic narrative technique is the rhyming equivalent of a jerky hand-held camera: not only more street and more interesting than the dull cinematography of flat narrative, but it reflects his source material more accurately.
Squalor is easy, but beauty is hard, and I cannot tell a lie: “Never Be the Same Again” is weak. I mean, props to Carl Thomas (zzzzzzz) and all, but this is a dull, ugly slow jam in which the Ghost drops his girl and takes the moral high ground. Ghost’s anger contrasts with the competent crooning of Carl Thomas in all sorts of ugly ways, and I’m really not sure what context this song is supposed fill. But he more than makes up for it with the wonderful “Ghost Showers” (“Sunshowers” retooled for the Holy Ghost’s stop’n'go flow), “The Forest” (yet another hip-hop fairy tale, with no moral, plenty of Bugs and Porky, lots of crack), and the awe-inspiring “Theodore” (spine-tingling singalong ghetto solidarity that rocks the bells like 1988). He even sticks a steaming slice of Quiet Storm at the end. “Love Session” mocks the wack “Never Be the Same Again” with its shivering bits of love power (“I might bite you at the altar”) and domestic bliss (“Burning the chronic we laughing while I’m shittin’ on the toilet”). Guest crooner Ruff Endz sounds like a late-period Bobby Womack: rugged, soulful, old school. In moments of romantic abandon I think it’s the album’s best track, really. But then I remember that “Love Session” might be brilliant, “Maxine”, “The Hilton”, and “Theodore” are dope. And with Ghost, dope tops brilliant.
“I’m trying to bring it back to 1988 for me and my people”, says Ghost, defending the forward-looking old-school feel of Bulletproof Wallets. “That was the age of getting money, looking fly, the whole dress code. Shit is something else out there right now, it’s like some 1905 shit… it’s all bullshit”. Well, if dissing the new school and resurrecting crass materialism are the price we have to pay in order to get more funky jams out of the Holy Ghost, then so be it. Bulletproof Wallets doesn’t have the peering-into-the-abyss street insanity of Ironman, sure, but it does come close. And damn, it sure does air you out nonetheless.