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May 15, 2004

With Clan going separate ways, Wu-Tang veteran stays sharp on bigger label

Out of all the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah has been the most consistent. After 1997, Wu-Tang group and solo albums took a huge drop in quality—from classic to downright forgettable. Ghostface, however, broke this trend in 2000 with his refreshing sophomore effort, Supreme Clientele.  The production mixed Wu-Tang's vintage haunted-house beats with plunky, guttural soul samples. Ghost even changed his style, rapping in rabid stream of consciousness, delivering lines with so much emotion that it didn't matter if they were nonsense. He even started flexing his versatility: How many other rappers have made songs about cartoon characters in the ghetto ("The Forest") or about how pretty the sun is ("The Sun")?

Ghostface's The Pretty Toney Album is his first since signing with industry giant Def Jam—a move intended to push him into the mainstream. Initially, things weren't looking so good. In an attempt to make the album more accessible, the label forced Ghostface to drop the "Killah" from his moniker. (Never mind that Ja Rule, also signed to Def Jam, has been squealing "It's Murda!" in every song for the past four years.) The second blow came with the announcement that the first single would feature Missy Eliott and be named, in all seriousness, "Tush." The worst part about rap being the new disco is that labels force otherwise talented rappers to make insincere, sell-out songs—and it looked like the new Ghostface CD would be full of them.

Thankfully, this is not the case. Ghostface's Pretty Toney Album matches Kanye West's The College Dropout as one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, thanks in part to its use of soul. On the ominous "Be This Way," Ghostface's violent verses break down at the same time the bassline does, with an upbeat Billy Stewart sample and exultant horns briefly intervening. And on "Save Me Dear" and "Holla," Ghost doesn't even bother with a sample: He rhymes over the full versions of Freddie Scott's "Got What I Need" and the Delfonics' "La La Means I Love You." This manages to be, paradoxically, both unoriginal and creative: Rather than rap to a simple loop, Ghost raps around the shifting harmony and vocals, adding a whole new level to the song while simultaneously showing respect for it.

Many of the other tracks feature thundering production that sounds like it slipped through the cracks of Ghostface's 1996 debut album, Ironman. From the sharp, wandering horns of the album's opener, "Biscuits," to the meandering piano-tickling of "It's Over," Ghostface proves he should be selecting the beats for every Wu-Tang album. The standout track, by far, is the RZA-produced adrenaline rush "Run." Over a stuttering bass line and—believe it or not—a Flintstones sample, Ghostface and Jadakiss dispense advice on one of the most important things in life: running from the police. Ghost shouts on the chorus, "Run! If you're sellin' drugs in a school zone!/Run! If you're getting chased with no shoes on!" It's Jadakiss who steals the show, though, rapping, "It's hard for me to slow down, it's like I'm on the throughway/My belt's in the crib on the floor by my two-way/Now I'm try'nna hold my hammer up, and my pants too/If they don't kill me, they gon' give me a number I can't do."

As an MC, Ghostface isn't as brilliantly unorthodox as he was on Supreme Clientele, but he's still got some good lines. On the plodding "Kunta Fly Shit," he raps, "Jesus Christ!/Brothers around here stick together like cheap rice/So run, little doggy!" The bouncy "Beat the Clock" features the lines, "We left the jewelry store, feelin' like we left the morgue/We was frozen, and I brought an iced-out Trojan. That's for pussies that's golden, that got Toney wide open!" On "Holla," we hear, "Word to MetLife, Toney got insurance on his mics/Smoke mad shit and still got endurance when he fight!" And then there's the album's startling closer, the heartfelt, R&B flavored "Love," in which Ghost lists everything he loves—his relatives, his enemies, his sicknesses and his last album "even though it went wood!"

If only the whole CD were this consistent. The radio single, "Tush," is slightly tolerable because of its disco-flavored beat, but it's easily the worst track Ghostface has ever made. (The chorus could be aptly paraphrased as "Bush tush bush in the tush bush tush.") The sappy "Take Me Back" also feels out of place, with its sugary vocal sample and wretched performance from Jacki-O (who?!). The self-titled, wannabe anthem "Ghostface" fails as well, boasting a beat too minimalist to remember—and a chorus too excruciating to listen to at high volume. And finally, there's a handful of aimless, forgettable skits and a glaring absence of better songs that leaked months ago ("Gorilla Hood," "Tony's Money," "The Splash").

Ghostface isn't a "Killah" anymore and—aside from one RZA beat—he's not really representing Wu-Tang either. But, as it turns out, he doesn't need to. He's gotten to a point where he's so good he can make it on his own. Will he go Hollywood, like Method Man? Will he take an iron vacation, like ODB? Will he vanish into obscurity and run the cash register at the Wu-Wear store with U-God and Masta Killa? Probably not. Ghostface, aka Pretty Tony, aka Tony Starks, the invincible Ironman, lives.