It might have just been the lights, but it looked like the cat in the Willie Esco sweat suit had saltwater in his eyes. He partook in the “All That I Got Is You” sing-along that rapper Ghostface (né Killah) led from the Roseland stage. Lighters flickered, then came the eye moistener: “Seven o’clock, pluckin’ roaches out the cereal box/Some shared the same spoon, watchin’ Saturday cartoons.” Minutes earlier, Mr. Esco had been seething at DJ Kay Slay’s y’all-wanna-party-like-we-do set. But when Ghostface sauntered on, all was forgiven. He’s one of the few who can provoke live tears from guys with tattooed ones.
Ghostface didn’t weep during his April 26 performance, and he doesn’t weep on his stirring new LP either. But he’s an emotional man. Back before his voice broke, on the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut, he shared the poignant “Tears” with RZA; Ghostface’s verse was about a friend who got burned by HIV. On The W‘s haunted “I Can’t Go to Sleep,” he whimpered about “babies with flies on they cheeks.” On The Pretty Toney Album, though, he doesn’t need such blatant displays—the emotion is set deep into the record.
“Hip-hop soul” is supposed to be for r&b singers, but Ghostface’s latest redefines the term. The sampled voices are so prominent they could be on the marquee: the Delfonics, the Emotions, Billy Stewart, Sylvia Robinson. Except for the shameless Missy Elliott collaboration “Push,” and “Ghostface,” which suffers from a pseudo-sexy femme chorus and A.D.D., Pretty Toney is swaddled in soul. A mournful Billy Stewart conveys desperation on “Be This Way,” and “Save Me Dear” combines a lavish Freddie Scott sample and robust snares.
The Wu-Tang Clan have always channeled spirits. But here Ghostface gets much cozier with the singers he puts on—partly because the chunks are more substantial, and partly because the man who prowls the stage in a personalized terry cloth robe is also underdressed emotionally. Some use warm samples to humanize heartless lyrics. In Ghostface’s case, they amplify his sentiments. On “Holla,” he simply rhymes over the Delfonics’ “La La (Means I Love You),” adding his own plea to the chorus.
Pretty Toney has the weight of sincere soul music: Ghostface’s heart is heavy. He does offer his trademark high-pitched criminal vignettes—the frenetic, RZA-produced “Run” almost matches Bulletproof Wallets‘ lurid “Maxine.” But the language is more straightforward than usual: fewer culinary non sequiturs. He’s trying to get a point across, a cautionary moral summed up on “It’s Over.” As the track peters out, Ghost raps, “You see, sometimes it don’t pay/What goes around comes around in many different ways.” A better investment, in his opinion, is romance. Ghostface’s gender politics are rigidly old-fashioned. The father of four is explicitly anti-choice, and on “Tooken Back,” Miami vice queen Jacki-O describes a woman’s place in Ghost’s world: “Cook, clean, break up your weed/And I give you nasty throat.” From the TMI “Bathtub” skit to the charming “Save Me Dear,” both candlelight and lust permeate the album. This has its limits, but it beats being a killah.
Pretty Toney lacks the high gloss of so much hip-hop soul. In fact, it fails to deliver the penthouse fame and fortune “toney” suggests. He barely brand-checks, and complains about his girlfriend’s taste for filet mignon. Instead, Ghostface is after more earthly delights: “happiness in globs.” Not just for himself, but for the children. At the beginning of the album, he warns, “Stay in school”; at the end, he implores, “Each one teach one.” Onstage, grasping his gold, he said, “This shit don’t make me, I make it. I rock my gear seven days straight. I don’t give a fuck if I’ve got a hole in my sock. The only difference between me and you? I don’t eat pork.”