In the unlikely success story of the rap group/ militia/religious cult/consumer goods company the Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah has authored the unlikeliest individual success story.
His urgent, high-pitched flow is made of tortured metaphors and slang so obscure even Raekwon probably sometimes has to request clarifications. Ghost yells almost all his rhymes in a panicked bleat, and he is constitutionally disinclined toward making appealing club singles. As much as he seemed an unusual candidate for breakout solo stardom, he also wasnt a star in traditional Wu-context. Ghostface did not work the program. His milieu was never that beautiful kung fu-Islam hash GZA and Inspectah Deck spin into deadly magic.
The RZAs Killa Bees brought him in a gimmicky mask, at first within shooting distance of the mainstream, but it was his solo musics thematic and structural differences from the Wu-Tangs work that have let him build one of rap musics all-time great careers, a string of solid to totally unfuckwitable discs stretching from Ironman to his two excellent Raekwon collabos in the Only Built 4 Cuban Linx series to the brilliant Fishscale.
If divergence from the commonplace has been his strong suit, maybe we have another winning idea in the new direction represented by the unforeseen R&B sex voyage Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, which has drawn bemusement and mixed reviews. Ghosts Halloween night show at The Fox Theatre with mixtape star Fashawn and DJ Cavem should be fascinating.
Drizzleton, of the Oakland underground trio iLL- Literacy, captured Ghosts essence in an e-mail last week. Ghostface lives in the land between thug eccentricity and total abstraction, Nas on one side, Kool Keith on the other.
He draws people in like the crazy guy shouting to himself on the subway. You cant understand exactly everything hes saying, but he speaks it with so much conviction that you cant help but listen. And I mean that in the most respectful way possible, Drizzleton said.
With the first rhyme on the first track on Wus debut Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Ghostface, whose government name is Dennis Coles, established the tone he uses today. Hes shouting, and the tenth word of the verse is glock. Ghost is an adventure in any sonic setting, but the full-length Wu albums never gave him the legroom he needs. GZA is a master of one-off verses packed with swords and Five Percent math. Inspectah Deck flings murderous, oh-shit-inducing abstractions over the the RZAs dungeon soul.
But Ghost had stories to tell, stories about weird sex and killing.
Chuck D said, Rap is CNN for black people. If that were the case, Ghostface is like a cross between Fox News, HBO and the Spice Network. Hes a semirealist storyteller who rhymes about sex, violence and violent sex. His delivery moves at an agitated sprint, like hes living Ray Liottas sweaty, coked-out paranoia attack at the end of Goodfellas. He carries a gun, and hes willing to use it at the thinnest provocation.
But Ghostfaces violence differs from the casual killing motifs woven into much rap, good and bad. Other MCs rerun the worn tropes of nickel-plated Desert Eagles and moving powder. Ghostface tells stories in the Coen Brothers vein: tense, comedic shoot-outs in which the violence stems from the characters ineptitude and fear. The greatest specimen of them all is Shakey Dog, the lead track on Fishscale in which Ghost details a botched drug spot robbery. He lays out the lead characters mistrust of his cronies, cuts to the bungled robbery, then details the premature but inevitable deployment of firearms, which leads to the summary shooting of the big titty Spanish-speaking wife just before the song ends with the pinging of empty shell casings on the floor.
Ghost isnt all crazy sex and violence, and his tender moments are heartbreaking and funny. All That I Got is You from Ironman is one of the saddest songs possible, a weeper strung together from sadeyed remembrances of a broke childhood in Staten Islands Stapleton Projects. Hes never a feminist, but he goes dangerously far into that territory on Fishscales stunning Big Girl, in which he counsels cocaine-addicted club women to kick drugs and enroll in technical college.
Gangster rap is a genre, and within that genre, Ghostface is the most soulful, said West Coast MC Jern Eye.
Its as if hes a 70s soul singer caught in the present, Jern Eye said.
So we should have seen Emerald City coming. What isnt likely coming soon is a new Wu-Tang group album. After murdering a track or two on the most recent Wu group release 8 Diagrams, Ghost cooked a beef with RZA, Wu-Tangs brilliant control freak CEO, kvetching to the media and suing him over royalties. That sucks for Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck and U-God. But Ghostface, who found success in his thematic distance from the other Wu generals, should be just fine.
On the Bill
Ghostface Killah plays the Fox Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 31.
Doors at 8:30. Fashawn, DJ Cavem and Skyzoo open.
Tickets are $22.50 to $26. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.