By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
Poor Jay-Z. With Kingdom Come, he sheepishly dabbled in growth, maturity, introspection, nuance, evolution: "30's the new 20" and so forth. He was met with hoots of derision. We laughed him out of the room. He wanted to grow up; we preferred he didn't. So this year he gave us what we wanted: American Gangster, a throwback-soul reminder that he used to deal drugs.
"The people want you to stay a certain way for the rest of your life," says Ghostface Killah, Staten Island's (not to mention the Wu-Tang Clan's) finest. "People don't want change, man. But you're becoming a grown man. You can't be 45 years old talking about how many bricks, how many kilos you turned over, how many you sold, at 45. People have to start talkin' grown-man shit. I respected Jay-Z on that shit, you know what I mean?"
Ghostface Killah is 37. Jay-Z is 38. But he doesn't seem to have his label president's fan-antagonizing problem, this citizen's arrested development, because from the onset (as a solo entity, 1996's Ironman), Ghost has freely trafficked in nuance, introspection, grown-man shit. He's vicious and venomous, of course, specializing in painstakingly detailed noir tales of armed robberies and the improvised, asthma-inflaming getaways from the cops that often ensue. Very few of his characters make an honest living; one of the best tracks on his masterpiece, 2006's Fishscale, is called "Kilo," after all. But he's also warmer and goofier than his adversaries in the crack-rap tradesweeter, more wistful, more morally complex. Fishscale's finest moment, "Big Girl," reprises his signature trick of not so much sampling a classic soul track (here, the Stylistics' "You're a Big Girl Now") as merely throwing it on and rapping over it, unadorned: He addresses a pack of ladies and vacillates from crass faux-pimp talk to something genuinely fatherly . . . he wants to protect them, nurture them, wean them off the drugs he's spent the bulk of the last 19 tracks pretending to sell ("Some of y'all nose hairs is burnt," he notes with alarm), and set them on the path to happiness, marriage, career fulfillment as doctors, lawyers, nurses, librarians. Every rapper occasionally feigns this sort of compassion; Ghost makes you believe it.
"You gotta take 'em there, man," he insists, chatting on the phone, still on a roll. "You gotta start talkin' about more adult things. You talkin' about kilos all day, it's like, 'C'mon, man.' I gotta start talkin' abouthelp savin' the babies, man. And getting these women to be a real mother to they child, and getting these guys to start fuckin' lovin', respectin' my women. You gotta growdevelopment. And your fans'll get mad at you and shit, but they gotta understand too, man. That this is your life, man; this ain't they life. I done gave you what I could give you when we was all livin' in that world, but we ain't doin' that no more. You know what I mean?"
Ghostface surmises that some rappers don't even truly hit their stride until their late thirties, even beyond. Him, for example. "I don't think I'm in my prime," he says. "But I think that for me not to be in my prime, I'm doing a good job." Proof of thatnot truly great yet, but good enoughcan be found on his new solo disc, The Big Doe Rehab. Expect a reception less rapturous than that which greeted Fishscale, but significantly warmer than the one accorded Kingdom Come. There's some loopy, fantastic moments here, particularly "Supa GFK," Ghost waxing surreally lascivious over Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Superman Lover": "Walk through the Amazon spillin' Dom, Mo find my way back I gotta leave a trail of baguettes." But grim, blackhearted crime procedurals like "Yapp City" and "Shakey Dogg Starring Lolita" lack the visceral wallop and delighted wordplay that Ghost is capable of, and there's nothing as joyfully playful as "Back Like That" or as paternally endearing as "Big Girl." "I'd Die For You" has a whiff of that benevolence and romance, but the seething last verse is devoted entirely to people Ghost wouldn't die for. (Don't take it personal, but that list probably includes you.) Lead single "We Celebrate" has a manic, exhilarating energyscreeching Kid Capri cameo, Rare Earth sample and allbut it sounds more like an NFL highlight-show jingle than a crossover smash. Rehab will sate the converted, but struggle to convert the rest.
There's another problem here. The latest in a prolific, potentially oversaturating stretch for Ghostfaceafter Fishscale came late 2006's More Fish, by definition a motley pack of outtakes with auxiliary crew Theodore Unit that still hung together fine as a full albumRehab is also doing battle with next week's marquee release: Wu-Tang Clan's 8 Diagrams, the increasingly fractured group's first effort since 2001's disappointing Iron Flag. First came a public spat over schedulingbriefly, both records were set to come out the same day until Ghost balked and Wu mastermind RZA politely (and publicly, and somewhat grumpily) agreed to push Diagrams back a week. But in addition to loudly complaining of financial mismanagement, Ghostface is also joining Raekwon (on record, at least, his closest Wu ally) in attacking Diagrams itself.