Hustler's Rehab: Ghostface Killah's Back (Again!)

It was almost a disaster. Ghostface Killah’s new album "The Big Doe Rehab" was slated for release today, and by chance so was the latest from Wu-Tang Clan (of which he is a member).

What a pickle! Ghost was upset. The rest of the group was upset. The fans… well they were just excited about the new music. After a few tense days things were set right, so we’ll have to wait another week for that Wu-Tang album, but Ghost stands alone, and thank goodness.

It’s not that the new Wu album isn’t an event, but it is fortunate that its release will not be given any opportunity to overshadow Ghost’s new effort (and if the highly publicized Wu Tang lead-off single "The Heart Gently Weeps," sampling the Beatles, is any indication, it won’t have much chance of overshadowing "The Big Doe Rehab anyhow). The Wu are still great, but their albums have been a study in clusterfuckery, none able to hold a candle to their chaotic, unnerving, foreboding, still-ahead-of-its-time debut, 1993’s "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)."

Yet Ghostface Killah has developed a knack for infusing into his songs, whether party jams, love songs, dizzy crime narratives, or ego-drenched self-congratulations, a dark, lonesome dissatisfaction.

Ghostface has become several things since the salad days of "36 Chambers." He has emerged as the preeminent lyricist in the group and its most prolific member (though for a while, it seemed Method Man would never shut up or stop making frat-bong albums and movies alongside Redman), as well as one of the most beloved rappers around, not only for his skillful rhymes but for his grandiloquent yet charming personality. He shares Pitchfork headlines with indie stars like Cat Power and Trail of Dead, yet he’s also guest-starred on 30 Rock. He made pretty much every indie-snob’s best-of list for "Fishscale" and he has a coffee-table book coming out of his philosophical musings, in conjunction with a recurring MTV segment.

Recently I heard a story where Ghost was in Austin, Tex. for the South by Southwest Music Festival and asked one organizer who all the white kids in the sold-out audience were. "They’re hipsters," he was told, to which he countered "What the fuck is a hipster?"

His ability to retain credibility in the face of achievement (something success makes difficult for many rappers, not least its biggest star, Jay-Z) is impressive.

Ghost is the consummate crack rapper (somewhat of a redundancy in today’s scene), equal parts celebratory and paranoid in regards to his stories of drug dealing, but with a joy and a playfulness that is a singularity among his Wu-Tang cohorts (Method Man’s practiced stoner daydreams come closest. They’re just too stoned most of the time). The Big Doe Rehab finds him still inhabiting the space between debasement and ecstasy, reveling in the lows and finding the drawbacks of the highs. The album title itself refers to an imaginary rehabilitation facility for those who simply have too much money, too much stimulus, and need a break from the hectic pace of being a mogul. As a whole the album is somewhat less cohesive than last year’s Fishscale (though far more cohesive than rushed follow-up More Fish (the name really said it all).

The musical backing is composed, as ever, of sweet soul and funk samples augmented by string and orchestral arrangements. In the case of "Supa GFK" Ghosts rhymes float on top of entire choruses from Johnny "Guitar" Watson’s "Superman Lover," as though only the entire song could suffice for a backdrop, and on "Walk Around," the pop and click of vintage vinyl extends for a few moments once the song is done. The samples are a form of nostalgia. No Dirty South electro bleeps here. Instead one gets the impression that Ghost would like to be singing these dusty old classics, but circumstances will only let him rhyme on top, make whatever mark he can.

This subtle mark of inadequacy, or yearning, or dissatisfaction, is one of the hallmarks of Ghost’s narratives. Even when the party is the thing, as on "We Celebrate," between the undeniable sample of Rare Earth’s classic "I Just Want To Celebrate," legendary hype man and DJ Kid Capri’s whoops and hollers of "party up!" and Ghost explaining that this song represents how one would feel "like my squad won the Superbowl," or "Toney Starks won the Oscar y’all!" there’s still a spectre, of paranoia and disappointment lurking just around the corner. There is a certain grim regret shot through the celebratory, hallucinogenic retellings of violence and crime. Just after "Celebrate" Ghost the murderer freezes up after the moment of extreme violence ("Walk Around"), and raps about losing his nerve, throwing up in the getaway driver’s car, but then monologues his resolve "I ain’t going crazy," wondering aloud, perhaps to others, perhaps to himself, and not sounding altogether convinced.

Later, on the fabulous "White Linen Affair (Toney Awards)," lists of celebrities are rattled off for a mythic party, but Ghost seems uneasy, and not everything feels just right. even amid tremendous humor of the "Evian water" party, exclaiming "hope I don’t play with baking soda in my older years."

The latter half of the album is where the best songs reside, among them the minimal, flute accented "Rec Room Therapy" and "I’ll Die For You," an explanation of those Ghost would give up his life for, including family and ancestors, a kind of flipside of "Supa GFK," where Ghost brags about his superhuman acumen at criminality, seduction, etc. "Shakey Dog Starring Lolita" (a continuation of Fishscale’s thrilling and terrifying "Shakey Dog") and "!" offer a duo of narrative songs revolving around dangerous, sexy women, again with a lamenting tone on the first and a kind of fearful excitement on the latter (whose chorus, rhymed by Method Man, is so corny it’s wonderful).

Guest stars abound, including frequent collaborator Raekwon, Ghost’s own son Sun God (who turns in a couple of great performances) and various other Wu alums.

Final bonus track "Slow Down" interacts most forcefully with the title theme of breaking away from the life of crime, money, and overstimulation for self-salvation, with the Feist-like Chrisette Michele singing the hook over a stuttering beat backed by weepy strings. It’s a sweet echo of an earlier track, the strange yet very moving "The Prayer," sung a capella and augmented by chest thump syncopation and finger snaps by a singer named Ox. It’s a gorgeous gospel-inflected questioning of the divine to find a purpose and a path, with Ghost subtly adding exhortation in the background.

Between those two tracks the doom-laden excess of the rest of the album begins to achieve meaning beyond great beats and rhymes, to convey something of the exhaustion behind the life Ghost raps about, behind what most rappers rap about. He’s delving deeping than simply paranoia or rage into a more complicated appreciation of where the glamour fades and one is left questioning God and ultimately, simply talking to oneself, wondering if there’s any meaning to be found in this world. Hustler's Rehab: Ghostface Killah's Back (Again!)