There are few rappers with voices so unmistakable and rhymestyles so original and fluid that you could go into a coma for a decade and instantly identify them upon recovery: Scarface, Ras Kass, Freeway and Ghostface Killah. Ghostface's voice and name are the first heard on Wu Tang Clan's Enter the 36 Chambers, which 10 years ago introduced the world's first rap "supergroup," complete with supernatural alter egos and Shaolin monk discipline with lyricism and breath control.
Ghost showed up in the Wu's first videos with a stocking cap over his face, not caring that the masses couldn't see the mouth spitting the flames. Today his face is fully disclosed, resurrected on Def Jam Records after a sour deal with Epic. He's dropped the "Killah" from his name, and rocks more gold chains and medallions than Slick Rick on his heaviest days.
The Pretty Tony Album sits right next to Ghost's earlier Iron Man and Supreme Clientele to complete probably the most perfect trilogy this side of The Godfather. (His remarkable, yet flawed, Bulletproof Wallets we won't count; chalk it up to an exit strategy from Epic.) No matter what the CD, Ghost always knows how to bring back nostalgic feel-good moments of rap without sounding corny doing it.
Remember rhyming over old Isaac Hayes songs, trying to catch the beat but having to rhyme over Hayes' singing because we didn't have the instrumentals? Those improvisational impromptu karaoke cypha sessions in the basement over dusty Technics? Ghost hasn't forgotten. He enshrines those memories on Pretty Tony. On the only two songs he gives himself production credits for, "Save Me Dear" and "Holla," Ghost literally rhymes directly over Freddie Scott's "You Got What I Need" and the Delfonics' "La, La, La Means I Love You." The songs are neither chopped, chipmunked nor churned. They play almost in their entirety, and Ghost spits over Scott and the Delfonics like they're not even there. It's a challenge to the ears, much like Iron Man's "Black Jesus" with the Flash Gordon theme playing in the background or the hiccup-paced "Stroke of Death" from Supreme Clientele -- a delicacy missing from Bulletproof Wallets.
The real beauty of Pretty Tony is the role of horns in much of the songs' production. It's a throwback to the days of Showbiz and A.G. and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, when trumpets and trombones were the norm. The horns on Pretty Tony just roll, no matter who the producer. Meanwhile, you rock ya head in a way non-exercised since the years of Supreme Clientele. Remember the neck-breaking head-nod factor? It was once the criteria for copping a disc, and Ghost employs plenty of it.
In "Metal Lungies," featuring LOX brethren Sheek Louch and the other ghost, Styles P., producer No I.D. (who taught Kanye West) makes his presence felt in a big-band way. His brass blasts at you like Bayou Classic halftimes.
Ghost's duet with the latest female pottymouthed ex-tittiebar-star-turned-rapper, Jackie O., is pathetic when compared with his earlier collabo with Charli Baltimore or his more recent with Missy. "Love," featuring Musiq, aspires to his other R&B ventures swung with Mary J. Blige, Carl Thomas and Beyoncé, but fails miserably.
"Run" is a throwback to the true Wally-era. Here trumpet sirens thumb-wrestle with actual police sirens in the beloved ode to fleeing police. You can't help but feel you've heard this exact same song from other Wu artists -- RZA's "The Chase" and Cappadonna's, well, "Run" -- but Ghost takes ownership over the song with LOX chief Jadakiss as his cover.
The genius of Ghost is that he's able to creatively respond to the arrested development of hip hop without completely abandoning rap, turntablism, sampling or any other basic element. It flies in the face of other artists who've vowed recently that hip hop is dead. Ghost has said it himself. But in Ghost's world, that new sexy pronouncement has more to do with the artist saying it than the music.
Here's to believing in ghosts.