Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ghostface Killah

  • Ironman [Sony, 1996] A
  • Supreme Clientele [Epic/Razor Sharp, 2000] A-
  • Bulletproof Wallets [Epic, 2001] A-
  • Fishscale [Def Jam, 2006] A+
  • More Fish [Def Jam, 2006] A-
  • The Big Doe Rehab [Def Jam, 2007] A-
  • Fish N Chips [Mick Boogie Entertainment, 2007] B+
  • GhostDeini the Great [Def Jam, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City [Def Jam, 2009] A-
  • Apollo Kids [Def Jam, 2010] ***
  • 36 Seasons [Salvation/Tommy Boy, 2014] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Ironman [Sony, 1996]
The most street of the Clan--not comic like Ol' Dirty Bastard or mack like Method Man, not deep like Raekwon or Genius either. In a word, gangsta--East Coast-style, reflective and observant, only he doesn't vow to go straight all the time. By his own account, he's done a lot of bad things, and within five minutes he's spewing some of the vilest woman-hate in the sorry history of the subgenre. But the detail is so vivid and complex that for once we get the gripping blaxploitation flick gangsta promises rather than the dull or murky one it delivers. True crime tales like the vengeful "Motherless Child" and the unstoppable "260" are gritty and action-packed, and even the spew plays out as exactly what a long-dicked knucklehead would want to say to the young thing who done him wrong. Then there are moments like "Camay," in which social-climbing crew members move on a legal secretary and an assistant manager at Paragon, and the social-realist family reminiscence "All That I Got Is You." Most decisive of all, RZA's music is every bit as literal as Ghostface's rhymes and rap, giving up tunes, even hooks. As soulful as Tony Toni Toné--maybe more. A

Supreme Clientele [Epic/Razor Sharp, 2000]
Last one was the great Ghostface album, which Wu fans didn't notice because they were up to their necks in mystical shit. Now that obscurantism is out of style again, his vocal clarity, verbal dexterity, and narrative facility push the collective pleasure button. They earn it, too--"One" is hookier and "Deck's Beat" funkier than anything on Ironman. Still, only "Child's Play"--kiddie nostalgia whose corny shtick Ghostface defeats with details that could come from a notebook--approaches the documentary coherence of "260," "Camay," or "All That I Got Is You." In effect, it's another Wu mood record. But this time the mood is all vocal clarity, verbal dexterity, and narrative facility. Plus perhaps the long hard look RZA took at Wu Wear's profit profile. A-

Bulletproof Wallets [Epic, 2001]
With the Wu so cash-poor it's concocting best-ofs from two-album catalogs, Ghostface remains rooted enough to rhyme as both Dennis Coles the insecure project kid and Tony Starks the tough guy with an eye. His high wail intimating banshee and crybaby, he tells a pathetic tale of small-time violence, lets sex get to him, and launches song-and-dance routines that bespeak his deep commitment to show business. Limited partner Raekwon pulls no more weight than the up-and-coming second-raters who provide alternative raps because this album is where Ghostface really steps up. Sure RZA's the man when he chips in, as in "Walking Through the Darkness" (ignore the booklet and go to track 11). But every beat belongs to the man with his name on the slug line, and that's all most of them need. A-

Fishscale [Def Jam, 2006]
With the crack trade making its hip-hop comeback, Ghost fashions a trend record that ranks with any Biggie or Wu CD. Morally, it's a retrospective--there's no attempt to convince us that he's still in the game or wants to return. But neither will he countenance doubt that he knows whereof he speaks. The stories are as vivid, brutal, and thought-out as any noir, with details that both encompass and surpass the wisdom of "pyrex scholars." This is a guy with a bald spot who likes cranberry Snapple, Larry King Live, and women who work for JetBlue. When he asks his boo to turn the flame down a little, he says thank you. His high wail renders extreme anxiety beautiful. And before the music settles into a powerfully souled and sampled Clan-type groove, its screeching intensity has a Nation of Millions feel. A+

More Fish [Def Jam, 2006]
Not really rehashed leftovers but definitely a Christmas snack, this could prove a paradigm shift: major label--not Sanctuary meets De La or Koch doing its thing--sticks with quality artist past his commercial prime because he'll certainly break even and possibly sell long-term. Granted, it could just be Jay-Z playing his remaining executive cred for the greater glory of his artistic legacy (which would also be a paradigm shift). But hip-hop is now where rock was in the early '80s, when veterans such as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Lou Reed were the equivalent of what the book trade called publishers' poets back when commercial publishers dealt poetry. Whether doing his ex-Wu thing or mixtaping with the Theodore Unit pals showcased here, Ghostface always tells a good story and finds a good beat. This isn't the gauntlet Fishscale was. It's just a good bunch of songs. Thank UniMoth for venturing capital on it. A-

The Big Doe Rehab [Def Jam, 2007]
By dint of hard work, Ghost now has him a minor career as the classiest crime story writer in a genre that supports plenty of them. His narratives aren't especially coherent or economical, but are they detailed. "The way I fell cracked the face of my watch." "I know n****z with crack vials stuck to their colon." Like that. Although he's all about the Benjamins that provide the design motif, I believe the stories are fictions. One tipoff is that right after "White Linen Affair"'s priceless "What an awards show, there's Kanye West/Pamela Anderson and she brought both of them breasts," he gets a piece of Alicia Keys--although I grant that the same song's "Don't steal my ashtrays" sounds pretty authentic. A-

Fish N Chips [Mick Boogie Entertainment, 2007]
Carried beginning to end by force of vocal personality, the songs on this exceptionally unredundant 2007 mixtape are mostly undeveloped, as is standard for mixtapes. What isn't standard is that the guy with his name on the insert card is on all but two of the 23, and that one of the exceptions cuts tedious old Trife da God with excited young Termanology. Authorized Beyonce and unauthorized Amy Winehouse change things up, as does the mellow young thing whose "to be with you my love" replaces tedious young Carl Thomas on a "Never Be the Same" remix. Not that she isn't a two-timing heartsore anyway. B+

GhostDeini the Great [Def Jam, 2008]
"Ghostface X-Mas" Choice Cuts

Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City [Def Jam, 2009]
Aware that maybe his true crime mode is getting tired, he makes the potentially ridiculous switch to love man. Anyone who's witnessed his ramshackle Delfonics shtick onstage is forgiven for forgetting the courtly "Camay" and the violently pornographic "Wildflower" from way back in 1995. But rhymewise, this is original work. Eschewing oily sexual details, luxury purchases, and vows of generalized devotion, Ghost mines the same kind of specifics that juice his gangsta repertoire. He doffs paisley pajamas, offers a pregnant honey sauteed shrimp, jots down his regrets while riding to Riker's, carries her groceries up when the elevator goes out. He likes women who read; he praises stretch-mark fat and thick legs; he amplifies his apologies by noting, "I appreciate your concern and support for me." Yes, he shoots the cuckolding cable guy and adds to "Wildflower" the YouPorn special "Stapleton Sex." And, yes, he does occasionally offer a prospect glimpses of hog heaven. But he really seems to like women, which in a love man you gotta love. A-

Apollo Kids [Def Jam, 2010]
Living off his past, but it's quite a past and a damned decent living ("In the Park," "Purified Thoughts") ***

36 Seasons [Salvation/Tommy Boy, 2014]
Complete with live band and comic-book trot, but lacking a single irresistible track, 40-minute concept album mythologizes D. Coles's evolution from drug-dealing capo to drug-fighting romantic hero ("Emergency Procedure," "Blood in the Streets") *

See Also