[14 October 2009]
How does one critique Ghostface Killah? His career has been one of totalizing highs and lows. Sure, there was the menacing horror of Supreme Clientele and Fishscale, but also the detached indifference of Bulletproof Wallets. So when Ghost announced he’d be making an R&B record, it was hard to tell what exactly he meant. Would it be a sincere tribute to Al Green, James Brown, and Sly Stone—all those anxieties of influence that he had manipulated to obscurity in order to craft his own exquisite sound? Or would it be a record of slow jams about Ghost having sex with engaged pregnant women? Well, he does seduce a pregnant woman on “Paragraphs of Love”, but, more or less, Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City manages to strike a balance between both his personas: the violent, self-indulgent Shaky Dog of early Wu Tang, and the at once more humorous and reflective Ghost of more recent years.
So, here’s his idea of true love, laid out in the first song, “Not Your Average Girl”: “Do you got what it takes to fit in my will?” Death is the subtext of every word Ghostface has ever written. There’s a sweetness to the album—wind chimes, flutes, strings, grand pianos—that is missing here. No, this song displays the relentlessly pulsating beat of J Dilla—Ghost’s other anxiety of influence—resting somewhere between early R&B and a death mask’s howl. The words carry a frightening hopelessness. “Holla atcha boy”, Ghostface says. That is, “if you ain’t a groupie”. It’s easy to dismiss the song as a simple plea for sexual gratification, but underneath it all is a cold, lonesome necessity. When he says, “I need a girl that’s stackin’ and poppin’”, it feels like a matter of life and death. And it lays the groundwork for the rest of the album.
“Do Over” opens with some soulful vocals, a guitar guided along by a wah pedal, and a bombastic attitude, highlighted by horns and layers of sound. “Such a price to pay to kiss those girls and make them cry”, guest singer Raheem “Radio” DeVaughn sings. “I used to get a threesome every other weekend”, Ghostface interrupts—only later do we realize that “used to” is only because he’s on the bus to Rykers. “I lost my boo, it’s like being kicked out the crew”, Ghost says, suggesting a deeply sinister nature to his sexual politics. In fact, love and violence—love and inevitable death—are indecipherable. So too are their subsequent repercussions. Ghost’s shaky, stuttering voice has never sounded so scarred.
Yet the gloominess is broken up by a polar expression of emotion. The funk guitar of “Lonely” is underscored by Ghost’s total surrender of power: “Someone’s been sleepin’ in my bed…This is my fault I never though I’d see this coming”. The song’s structure reflects its content—Ghost takes a backseat, allowing guest vocalist Jack Knight to take over the song’s hook and chorus. It’s a little too modest. This is, after all, the guy that stole the show from Raewkon on both Cuban Linx I and II, yet he balances out this self-consciousness with moments of truly absurd grandiosity. “Stapleton Sex”, for instance, which begins with a woman moaning “Put it in” and continues with the refrain “You can put my dick in your mouth and play with my nuts”—a grasping at power so absurd that Ghostface might as well say, “I was just kidding with all of that lonely shit”. The song is enough to make you blush, fuck, it’s enough to make you want to go to confession—“Your pussy’s the bomb!” is really the only printable lyric. And ultimately the beat is weak, and Ghost sounds like he’s overcompensating.
But this ownership of power works more often than not. “Guest House” is the highlight here, a perfect synthesis of the album’s sweetness and Ghost’s characteristic gaudiness. The song opens with the rapper trying to place a call, failing, and walking around his enormous mansion with “glass pianos and Portuguese drapes” hanging from the ceiling, his “dick as hard as a callus”. Where is his wife, he wonders? The song is filled out by horns, and an enormous bass line straight off the Superfly soundtrack. It builds in intensity as he realizes that his wife is missing because she’s in bed with the cable guy, played with raggedly hilarious cynicism by Fabolous.
Gone here is the twisted wordplay of “Dogs of War”, the horrifying realism of Ghost’s verses on Raekwon’s “Cold Outside”, even the sexiness of “Back Like That”. There’s nothing realistic or sexy about this album—but it’s proof of how good a writer Ghostface Killah really is. Essentially, through a series of sardonic character portraits, Ghost manages to create a collection of songs that display, more than anything, his stygian wit. The melodies are weaker, the lyrics, aside from taking a harsh misogyny as their jumping off point, lack the straightforward edge of Fishscale, and the guest singers get carried away with their bellowing croons. And still, in spite of all this, Ghost finds a way to dig himself out of every dark corner he’s created, merely with his ability to throw together a string of signifiers that—no matter how insulting—is filled with more offhanded humor and intelligence than any other songwriter working in music today.