Inside the secret chamber of Ghostface Killah
Those who don’t agree could stand to return to a few of them, but no rapper has ever had a decade as fruitful or powerful as Ghostface Killah in the 2000s.
No question that Biggie’s four (yes, only fucking four) years in the spotlight, Lil Wayne’s fanatical 2005-2011 peak, or Jay Z’s long-game, 20+ year mastery yield higher highs in the form. And possibly even the Roots, who are taken for granted despite universal acclaim. But from 2000 to 2009, Dennis Coles boasted the purest distillation of a great rap career, which somewhat explains why he mostly only appeals to purists (and why 2009’s astonishing R&B experiment Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City never got its due). Despite the bulletproof reputation of 2000’s ironclad Rosetta stone Supreme Clientele, it was the multi-dimensional tour de force Fishscale in 2006 that marked his peak – one of not just rap’s but one of the greatest records of all time.
Clientele was a cornucopia of RZA’s most amazing boom-bap paired with Ghostface’s densest poetry, but it tends to blow heads over on sheer inscrutability alone, and it does flag a little towards the finish. Fishscale was just as detail-packed, but larger on concreteness: more concept (the Spongebob-repping “Underwater,” the outrageous child-abuse nostalgia “Whip You With a Strap”), more emotion (the infidelity rumination “Back Like That,” the almost fatherly “Big Girl,” paternal condescension and all), and music more fleshed out than simply amazing beats (the squealing rock-guitar hypefest “The Champ,” the Blaxploitation soundtrack simulacrum “Kilo”). These records were beloved, as were the underrated Bulletproof Wallets and overvalued The Pretty Toney Album between them, but the three follow-ups deserved vastly more love.
More Fish was dismissed as outtakes when its impressive narratives could crush most proper albums, and contained Ghost’s greatest pop single, “Good,” which went nowhere on Hot 97. The Big Doe Rehab was both more of the same and more swaggering in its presentation, with plenty of odd detours like “White Linen Affair” and “The Prayer” to give it its own distinction, as well as a growing emphasis on live soul backdrops rather than obscure loops. And then Ghostdini met Ghost’s genuine R&B love halfway with storytelling unlike any in rap or otherwise, like the real-time cheating dramedy “Guest House,” the incredible diabetic freak’s journal “Stapleton Sex” (“My slow jam dick is on Thursdays”), and “Do Over,” in which the narrator apologizes to a woman as he’s en route to prison.
Then 2010’s just-fine Apollo Kids marked a sobering new period where a rap-and-beats man with an ultimately limited purview of mostly crime-noir remembrances finally stopped breaking new ground and began repeating himself as “tasteful” collaborators like BADBADNOTGOOD and Adrian Younge failed to inspire magic on such forgettable and numerous efforts as Sour Soul, two volumes of Twelve Reasons to Die, the gimmicky comic tie-in 36 Seasons, and the gimmicky Meth and Rae union Wu-Massacre all fell not just woefully short of past excellence but didn’t inspire much reason to replay at all. Gestures like live-band orchestration and superhero sagas with matching collectible art should be invigorating new places for an imagination like Ghost’s to naturally ascend to. These were barely awake, with the painfully boilerplate storyline of 36 Seasons and slight runtime of Sour Soul hinting that the co-conspirators’ interest in Ghost’s music far exceeded his own.
So what is the new The Lost Tapes? A return to past glory or more running in place? It’s neither, but could well be a course correction. About par in quality with Apollo Kids, it invites repeated listens, the music is inspired by tunes and songwriting rather than authentic recreation of a bygone era, and it still isn’t a great album. But it’s a good one. Ghost is putting his mind (and ears) to it again after years he should’ve taken off.
The rapping isn’t why though. The dizzying strings of “Majestic Accolades” recall Supreme Clientele, not Ghost’s pro forma verse, and the most notable lines, like Hus KingPin comparing pussy to a “mosh pit” don’t come from the name on the marquee. In fact, Ghost often sinks into the background while the many unknowns in his entourage get almost as much mic time here. This would be regrettable if the star was firing on cylinders hotter than “colder than a glass of cubes” on “Buckingham Palace,” which gets to lead only because its horns recall Wu-Tang’s tough, inessential Iron Flag.
The single “Saigon Velour” is almost a Ghost song artificially created in a lab, which isn’t to say it’s unwelcome. The worldly details – Cuban cigars, Beatles plaques – are pallid compared to the dizzying soul sample that makes the track, but it’s always nice to hear the hiccupping E-40. And it’s fun when the host shouts out Radiohead, Green Day, and Ozzy Osbourne all in the same breath on the guitar-driven “I Think I Saw a Ghost.”
As a catalog of Ghost’s record collection, the beats here will do you as good as Bulletproof Wallets or The Pretty Toney Album if not better; they deserve a rapper who can show them the love those earlier albums got. Still, as a listening experience, a fading legend doesn’t really get in the way of his own modest comeback. How modest? Pitchfork hasn’t reviewed The Lost Tapes after more than a month of being on sale. As with Eminem’s similarly lost Kamikaze, we can tell the auteur is having more fun than he’s had in years while he tries to figure out what to say. Maybe next time he’ll have remembered how to rise above the music, but as a mixtape of the soundtrack that plays in the guy’s head, you could do a lot worse than hooks you’re more likely to hum than quote.