Sharps & Flats

Wu-Tang Clan's grandest gastronome, Ghostface Killah, slips between chaotic crime and silly non sequiturs.

Published March 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When Wu-Tang Clan first appeared on the scene, Ghostface Killah would never be seen without a mask, typically a thick stocking pulled over his head. However hidden, Ghost still became the most popular Wu MC among the hip-hop cognoscenti. While his peers created vivid images from B-movie fantasies, obscure ethical codes and self-aggrandizement, Ghost's free-association rhymes veered toward chaos. Miraculously, though, just as his verses appeared to slip into the ether, their internal logic became evident, with very deliberate syllable placements and cadences, intense alliteration and plainly absurd references somehow cohering into a successful flow.

Of course, anonymity is antithetical to fame, and soon enough the mask came off. By the time of his first solo album, Ghost's face was upfront -- as were his heartaches. "Ironman" (1996) was an astounding document of syllabic dexterity and personal revelation. Amid the above-standard braggadocio and Mafioso apocrypha were fragments of a tormented soul: a paean to his mother, a vicious skewering of an unfaithful ex. These were more profound than typical thug tears; the language captured an emotional complexity uncommon in hip-hop and rendered his heart in full color.

There are snatches of that pulse on "Supreme Clientele," Ghost's second LP. On "Child's Play," he reminisces about a teenage love, managing to combine innocence with an upstart hard-rock sensibility. One minute it's "She had a ... waist like a Coke bottle's scoring ... Mole like Marilyn Monroe/Threw a rose in her mouth." By the end, though, it's good morning, heartache: "Got jealous when she kissed Rob/I broke her chico sticks." What's new?

When Ghost roams, his gift appears in the proper light. Check the flashback: "Those were the days, made faces in school plays/Paper trays, citywide test made half-a-days/Shooting puppy water, might hump the pillow, dick a inch taller." In three lines, from the lunchroom to the bedroom, he encapsulates the expectation of youth and the way it devolves into adult contradiction. Ghost gives those shattered dreams even more play on "Wu Banga 101," where he spins a liturgical drama, weaving seemingly pithy details into a compelling narrative:

Slapped the pastor, didn't know Pop had asthma

He pulled out his blue bible, change fell out his coat

Three condoms, two dice, one bag of dope

Oooh! Rev. ain't right, his church ain't right
Deacon is a pimp, tell by his eyes ...

Two ushers slipped 80 dollars right out the pot.

Unfortunately, Ghost uses his skills for evil more than good, but that's not a sin. His criminology lectures are among the most compelling in the game, ribald with a delivery and language that lend them an aura of almost extrahuman possibility. On "Ghost Deini" he effectively cops to sticking up two rival rappers. (The story is likely a swipe at rapper 50 Cent, whose "How to Rob an Industry Nigga" was the subject of much consternation in the hip-hop world last summer.)

Then, when he drops the crime, his tales can turn seemingly nonsensical. As he did on earlier projects, Ghost displays his unusual lyrical relationship with food, lacing "One" with a classic gastronomic non sequitur:

Rhymes is made of garlic, never in the target

When the narcs hit, rumor is you might start to spit ...

Dug behind monument cakes, we never half-baked Alaskan, cess-capade, pushing new court dates.

Though superficially odd, Ghost's worldview certainly sounds luxurious and entrancing. On "Stay True," he describes "orals like Smokey's voice, little moist, but choice/We guzzle Dom, smoke the scratchy throats/Live on the edge, bracelets, shades and classy coats." Even when embracing the visceral over the intellectual, his proclamations perk. After preparing to "season the broth" of some select enemies, Ghost bursts forth: "Bung, bung, bung! Your bell got rung, rung, rung!" It's not celebration so much as excitement. Underneath all the decorous language and dark, masked imagery resides a man still capable of joy, even if it's only to celebrate another's downfall.

By Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica is a writer living in New York.

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