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 trade—sweeter, 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’ about—help 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 grow—development. 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 that—not truly great yet, but good enough—can 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 energy—screeching Kid Capri cameo, Rare Earth sample and all—but 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 Ghostface—after 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 album—Rehab 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 scheduling—briefly, 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.
“RZA is fumbling the ball,” Ghost says. “You know what I mean? Fumblin’ the ball. He wanna do what he do, when we trying to tell him, like, ‘Yo, man, do this or do that.’ His music wasn’t sounding like how it was when we first came in. And it’s hurting us. People want that old Wu-Tang shit, but you tryin’ to make new shit—tryin’ to play live instruments, instead of just goin’ to the crates and just do what you do best. You still a master at what you do, but right now you ain’t lookin’ like that master, ’cause you tryin’ to do other stuff. We were just upset with the way things was comin’ out.”
To be fair, Diagrams is a dense, abstract, deliberately nauseating, deeply disturbing piece of work—you’d think extensively biting “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” would make a song more accessible, not dramatically less—unlikely to halt the Wu’s slide in the public consciousness, losing ground to fresher entities (Southern rap, primarily), a calamity that Ghostface’s recent success has valiantly battled against. But it’s unfair that the main thing we know about this record, a week before its official release, is that two of its biggest rappers seem to hate it. And even if after five listens you find it repulsive, that’s still five hours or so of deep, bewildered fascination. Diagrams deserves better than I fear it’s going to get.
And furthermore, isn’t RZA just trying to do what Jay-Z tried to do, what Ghostface says you must do: evolve? Grow and develop and experiment, even at the risk of pissing off your fans? “We just need to go back to what we been doin’,” Ghostface insists. “If we not gonna go back to what the people—if you tryin’ to get somethin’ new, then do it right . . . Not just a beat with a bunch of rhymes goin’ different types of ways, and the beat’s not even all that, but you want everyone to sing on it.”
Diagrams could undoubtedly benefit from some warmth, some familiarity, some semblance of sanity. But a drop or two of its wide-eyed, half-crazed eccentricity wouldn’t have killed The Big Doe Rehab, either. As the tiff gets uglier and more public, interviewers lately have inundated Ghostface with Wu questions, to his understandable frustration: “I don’t care if you ask me about it, but let’s not just sit there and go for 40 minutes on it,” he says. But a reconciliation is crucial here: It could reinvigorate what remains one of East Coast rap’s most beloved franchises, and boost to new heights Ghostface, its star attraction, highly evolved relative to his competition but battling a whiff of staleness within his own outstanding catalog. But is it possible to make peace? “I’m not sure,” Ghost says. “I can’t tell you that, because it’s serious with Wu-Tang Clan right now. It’s serious. So I don’t know.” What would have to happen for everyone to reconcile? “I can’t even tell you. I can’t even tell you. I can’t even tell you.”