A year ago during an interview, Ghostface Killah made light of his advanced age by saying he would soon start rapping about his iced-out cane. By hip-hop standards, the Wu-Tang Clansman qualifies for a senior discount on his samples. Yet at 37, Ghostface is as vital and vibrant as any young gun, and a whole lot more interesting.
On "The Big Doe Rehab," in stores and online today, swagger is seasoned with wisdom and humor and stories of inner-city life are recounted in such telling detail that the album feels more like a series of urban radio dramas than a collection of rap tracks.
This isn't new territory for Ghostface, and it's something of a marvel that his signature narrative style still feels fresh on his seventh solo outing. Partly it's because his taste in music is so good: among the obscure '70s samples Ghostface uses on "Rehab" are Soul Generation's "That's the Way It's Got To Be (Body & Soul)," The Independents' version of "It's All Over," and "Lie No. 2" by the Originals. "Supa GFK" is built around a chunk of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Superman Lover," and Ghostface's flow is as smooth as a vintage soul tune. "We Celebrate," the album's first single, casts a dark cloud over Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate," although the anthem's original spirit of gratitude - in thug life, another day is something to be thankful for - remains intact.
But it's Ghostface's clear-eyed, high-drama sketches of violence that continue to set him apart from, and above, most of his peers. In "Walk Around," a man tries to explain to his son how a routine trip to the corner store turned into a slaughter near the buttered rolls. The track is built, brilliantly, around a sample of Little Milton's mournful "Packed Up and Took My Mind." Coiled, languid "Yapp City" (featuring protege Trife Da God and Sun God, Ghostface's son) begins and ends mid-robbery. Domestic nastiness is interrupted by a drug sting at "Yolanda's House" (one of several tracks featuring Raekwon and Method Man). Here and elsewhere, aggression is neither exalted nor self-aggrandizing; it's just a gritty reality, grippingly rendered.
There are lighter moments, too. A dizzy cacophony of red-carpet conversations anchors "White Linen Affair (Toney Awards)," while "At the Cabana Skit," a gangsta-salsa number, sets a gaggle of cursing hoods in a den of sassy horns and hot percussion where f-bombs are magically transformed into scintillating rhythms. Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump, credited as Ox, materializes from an astral universe to sing an a cappella piece called "The Prayer." The artists share a record label, which hardly justifies this unpleasant collaboration. On the contrary. But it's the rare misstep on a stellar effort from one of the genre's guiding lights.