By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
There's nothing so unbecoming as a nearly-40-year-old man unnecessarily agog over sex. We know it happens, but we'd prefer to think it does not. And to talk about it? Rap about it? Such is the undoing of Ghostface Killah on his (yes, you're getting old, too) ninth album.
Initially, the scuttlebutt over Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City was promising: The brilliant Ghostface would record an r&b album. For similar artists of his caliber, calling, and birth certificate, this might be a plea for relevance. But he has proven himself a wise interpreter of r&b history, from 1996's Jackson 5–interpolating "All That I Got Is You" with Mary J. Blige to 2004's mostly forgotten The Pretty Toney Album, a frenzied blend of lost samples and pleading gutbucket raps—"Holla" features the MC rapping over an untouched recording of the Delfonics' "La La (Means I Love You)." The uncleared cutting-room-floor miscellany from 2001's Bulletproof Wallets alone is an amazing exercise in '70s revival.
But Ghostface, who has struggled to regain form since 2006's celebrated Fishscale, is not only unfocused, but also profoundly unfun on Ghostdini. Few artists are as capable of the unpredictable—since 2000's Supreme Clientele, he has excelled at making albums both seamless and varied in form. But here, even his curios seem common. On "Forever," he raps, "So I took off my paisley pajamas I got from St. Thomas/Yo, I love you so much, so let me pay homage." Ghostface used to show, not tell; more accurately, he rapped at you, not to you.
But it's more than his disinterested writing that sinks him here. He has always had trouble with what makes contemporary r&b compelling—his pitched-up, strangled-vulture voice sounds best over the hiss and pop of a sample. Pair him with a compressed vocal stripped of ache and polished to a high sheen, though, and he is out of pocket. Previous pairings with new-ish artists like Ne-Yo on "Back Like That" and Carl Thomas on "Never Be the Same Again" have been momentum-derailing snoozers. And despite a blitz of pre-album leaks that featured him rapping over staples like "Computer Love" and "Cruisin'," on Ghostdini the samples are mostly absent, replaced by choruses from known and uninteresting quantities like Raheem DeVaughn (on consecutive tracks), Adrienne Bailon, and John Legend. (The-Dream, a label-mate and arguably the most progressive r&b artist working, reportedly snubbed Ghostface on this project.)
Furthemore, throughout Ghostdini, our host is in fuck-tape mode, supplying gory, flesh-flapping details on "Stapleton Sex," perhaps the grisliest, most realistic rap song not about murder ever recorded. Never has the word "gooshy" been used to such shocking effect; his charisma has never been creepier or more slight. Whether this is a midlife crisis or a late-contract cash-in is unclear. But Tony Starks, sharp and blizzard-like on longtime partner Raekwon's long-awaited and far superior Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, sounds like he's been getting some fine trim lately, but not much perspective.
Ghostface is not the only r&b aspirant with a carnal eye. Trey Songz—whose third album, READY, is one of the year's best—has a braying Virginian's voice that can climb to surprising heights, and he's all about the body in motion, hilariously boastful ("I Invented Sex"), intensely wooing ("I Need a Girl"), and ruthlessly au courant (the seizure-inducing "LOL :-)") when regarding once and future conquests. Trey is a disciple of R. Kelly, whom he attacked earlier this year on the enraged, apoplectic "D.O.A. Kellz (Death of Autotune)," a sung-rapped freestyle over Jay-Z's "D.O.A." The strangely thrilling song included a bizarre extension of support to his old friend, Chris Brown ("You're still a friend to me"), a history lesson ("Remember Aaron Hall, where the hell he at?") and a brazen bid for sneaker endorsement ("Nike, I need a puppet!"). It also featured Trey rapping, in places better than Ghostface, while still stretching his voice. He does the same all throughout READY, re-imagining the notion of flow—if not melody—just as his hero Kelly did 15 years ago.
But Trey's biggest success to date actually isn't his. It belongs to another old friend, the Phoenix-like (or is it Icarus?) rapper Drake: "Successful," from his dewy, accomplished mixtape, So Far Gone, was re-recorded and given an extra vocal verse for READY. The calm, yearning song is a bona fide hit, and also the best example of where r&b lives today. Though Drake is nominally a rapper, almost none of his moves say so: not the tone of his voice, not the tempo of his songs, and certainly not the cut of his jib. Drake, like Ghostface, raps about sex, but also love, a striking role reversal. (Drake is 22. Ghostface is 39.) He's melodically tender, sometimes recalling a young LL Cool J, and when his atonally glazed voice cannot do the job, he recruits singers like Trey, Lloyd (who also appears on Ghostdini), and Omarion—young, rap-informed vocalists with texture—to fill in the gaps.
Drake dealt with some sample issues of his own and re-released So Far Gone as a commercial EP this month, adding just one new song, the midtempo stunner "Fear." Already he's rapping about the perils of the spotlight—a shopworn subject for a rapper, of course. But "Fear" is so vulnerable and controlled ("I be gettin' high just to balance out the lows," he raps) that Drake appears to be rethinking the genre altogether. It's an amazing refraction of what rap can be in the decade to come: not rap.