New Ghostface Album: Not Better Than New Wu-Tang, Still Great
Better album cover than 8 Diagrams, anyway
There are plenty of reasons not to be happy about the latest spate of Wu-Tang infighting, but the worst thing about it is that this round of rumor-jammed news stories runs the risk of overshadowing the adjacent releases of 8 Diagrams and The Big Doe Rehab. Those two albums, intentionally or not, are going to draw a line down the middle of Wu-Tang's constituency. Everyone is going to pick sides between RZA's thick, shambling mysticism and Ghostface's pitched-up head-crack shit. The two albums are drastically different, but they don't exactly represent opposite sides of one coin. At the peak of Wu-Tang's unlikely popularity, there wasn't any contradiction between those two impulses; the head-crack stuff and the mystical stuff coexisted without any problems, and neither one ever overwhelmed the other. But with Ghost and Raekwon both calling bullshit on RZA's psyche-rap explorations and threatening to make a Wu-Tang group album without him, it's hard not to see these two albums as oppositional forces rather than twin triumphs. At this point, close to a decade and a half after Enter the 36 Chambers, we should be happy that anyone associated with Wu-Tang is still making vital music; the concurrent releases of two powerful albums should be reason to celebrate. Instead, it feels like the Clan is turning on itself, and these two great records are just its death-rattles, a perception that's not fair to either album.
If I have to declare allegiance to either album over the other, I'm going with 8 Diagrams, a record that continues to get more compelling every time I hear it. 8 Diagrams is more than I could justifiably ask for from a Wu-Tang album in 2007: dense and mysterious beats that evoke past RZA glories without reliving them, every remaining member going off, an album-construction that sprawls in all sorts of unexpected directions without ever losing its focus. But even though Rae and Ghost are, in my opinion, on some bullshit decrying 8 Diagrams, Big Doe Rehab is still a strong album. The album might actually play to Ghost's strengths too much; virtually every track is a straight-ahead adrenal banger with a screaming soul sample and a death-obsessed narrative. Back when rappers were actually expected to sell records, Ghost's albums found interesting ways to deal with the pressures of commerce; "Cherchez La Ghost," for instance, was his bent attempt at club-rap. When Ghost would shoot for clubs or rap&B radio playlists, he'd never quite get there, but the attempts had a way of breaking up all the fired-up brawlers. These days, nobody expects Ghost to be anything other than a niche artist, and so now he's free to fall back on his favorite kind of track: the bloody-minded street-crime narrative. Ghost is, of course, incredibly good at that stuff, and I'm not going to complain about a whole album full of it. Only about half the tracks on Big Doe Rehab even bother with choruses, and when actual hooks do show up, they're usually just whatever was on the song Ghost was already sampling. As far as I can tell, this is the album Ghost wanted to make, and it's an exhilarating ride.
One of the puzzling things about Rae and Ghost's anti-RZA campaign is that it involves both of them complaining about RZA trying to get too weird, when both of them, Ghost in particular, are among the weirdest rappers still holding onto major-label contracts. Big Doe Rehab is packed with vividly bizarre Ghost-isms: "The man that scrapped with lions, hibernated with polar bears," "Smuggle heroin in a cactus," "Double-cokeheads who watch cartoons / Type chicks who eat pussy, listen to Prince, and play with they wombs." I love the little dialogue he has with some girl on "We Celebrate": "'What's that in your pocket, Ghost?' A dill pickle / 'Not that.' Oh, that's the 45 stainless nickel." Like, does dill pickle actually mean something else in Staten Island street-slang? Or is Ghost really walking around with a fucking pickle in his pocket? Wouldn't it get so covered in pocket-lint that you wouldn't want to eat it? Ghost may think he's making a commercial album here, but he doesn't ever make things either for us, and it can take a few listens before his breathless narratives actually start to make sense. And he's on some grisly shit here, trying to get the brains out of his shirt on "Walk Around" and threatening to fuck a woman's dead body on "Shakey Dog Starring Lolita." Ghost is a great rap storyteller; his breakneck pace never keeps him from displaying a powerful, idiosyncratic eye for detail. On this album, he weaves other Clan guys into his stories, handing responsibilities over them and then wrapping things up by himself, like a group exercise in a creative writing class. But Ghost's gory story-rap isn't necessarily any more commercial than RZA's psychedelic space-rap, and it's really disorienting hearing Ghost staking out such a musically conservative stance.
When I interviewed Method Man last year, he pointed out that Ghost has been smart in picking beats; when he couldn't get RZA beats, he got beats that sounded like RZA. Other than the two weirdly sickly soul-jazz tracks that end the album, all of the tracks on Big Doe Rehab hit hard, not entirely unlike 36 Chambers-era RZA tracks. The last few Ghost albums didn't have a whole lot of appearances from fellow Clan members, but those intra-Clan lines of communication are apparently open again. Wu-Tang members are all over Big Doe Rehab, and these guys generally sound a whole lot better when they're alongside each other. I don't much like the idea of Rae and Ghost making a Wu-Tang album without RZA, but that's sort of what they've done here. If Big Doe Rehab isn't the vintage Wu-Tang album that Rae and Ghost wanted 8 Diagrams to be, it's close. The result isn't better than 8 Diagrams, but it's still pretty great.
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