Dean Van Nguyen click clack boom
Dennis Coles wasn’t fucking around in ‘06. A decade after his only platinum-selling solo record Ironman, Ghost was ostensibly primed to return to commercial relevance. For his new album Fishscale, he assembled a pricey production team that included Just Blaze, Pete Rock, Cool & Dre, MF DOOM and the recently departed J Dilla.
For lead single “Back Like That,” Ghost tapped chart-friendly crooner Ne-Yo. For the first time in years, he released an album that wasn’t compromised by sample clearing issues, incorrect tracklistings and other fuckery outside of his control. Ghost pulled out all the stops on Fishscale, and he wanted you to know it.
“The Champ,” an early jaw-dropper, opened with Just Blaze doing his best Mickey from Rocky impression, comparing the Wu rapper’s last few records to the tomato cans Balboa easily dispatched before coming unstuck against Mr T’s Clubber Lang. “He’s an animal, he’s hungry. You ain’t been hungry, since Supreme Clientele,” the beatmaker screams.
The insinuation was that Tony Starks’ previous two records, Bulletproof Wallets (2001) and The Pretty Toney Album (2004), were substandard affairs to bounce back from. This never sat right with me. Bulletproof Wallets was a fine record, offering a soulful counterpoint to the knuckle-duster classic that was the previous year’s Supreme Clientele.
But in many ways, Pretty Toney has always been the one. It’s the lone album that saw Ghostface (not credited as a Killah) impeccably unite the rich narratives and lush imagery of his hard-as-nails street rap with his near-flawless ear for dirty soul record. Given the apparent disdain voiced for the album, it was a nice surprise when during a recent interview with Wax Poetics’ David Ma, Ghost had some nice things to say about it: “I liked Pretty Toney. It had smooth verses on there, nah mean? Maybe cats don’t like that romance shit, but there’s some good shit on there.”
Featuring chopped up numbers by seventies soul mavens like The Delfonics, The Emotions, Billy Stewart, and David Ruffin, among others, The Pretty Toney Album comfortably sits alongside Cam’ron’s Purple Haze, Dilla’s Donuts and Kanye’s first two solo joints.
With RZA only credited as contributing two beats and zero Wu-Tang guest spots, Starks was firmly taking his leave from the 36 Chambers, establishing the archetype sound he’s continued to excavate to this day. Collaborating with mostly working producers like K-Def, Nottz, Minnesota and a pre-808s & Heartbreak No ID, Ghost uses the throwback joints to score grainy, fully-realized street-level narratives, influenced by every little crevice of the Staten Island he knows so well.
“Save Me Dear,” for example, mines the amorous horns and crisp snares of Freddie Scott’s “(You) Got What I Need” as he pays tribute to the woman who has stayed loyal throughout his treacherous life (“Word to fuck up, like Ralph, baby, you’re the greatest/I’mma sell my guns, and with the cash I’mma bring you to Vegas”).
Elsewhere, Starks sounds somber and affectionate when describing his hometown over the souped-up boom-bap of “Be This Way” (“We love a lot of things in the hood. But time goes on and if we don’t change a lot of shit, shit always gonna be this way”). On “Holla,” there’s no attempt to cut up the sample into a traditional hip-hop beat – Ghost just effortlessly runs wild over The Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You,” adding his own addendum to the chorus to flip it into a triumphant posse cut.
There are moments on Pretty Toney when he proves himself without peer. The relentless Blaxploitation bluster of “Beat The Clock” is an instrumental that few MCs could have laid a glove on, let alone viciously TKO. He switches up his flow mid-verse, he half- sings, and he talks to himself, all the while weaving in and out of the track’s immovable strings.
On the skittering, panic-stricken “Run,” he guides listeners step-by-step through a visceral account of being pursued by cops, constructing a formula he’d perfect on the critically-lauded “Shakey Dog” two years later. And as if to underline what an incredible rapper he is, the eternally flawed Jadakiss is invited to drop a verse on “Run,” serving as a kind of yardstick to gauge Ghost’s greatness.
Perhaps most incredible, though, is that Starks’s vision for Pretty Toney was severely compromised by the cuts he had to remove from the project due to sampling issues. The final product would only have benefited from “My Guitar,” which strips The Beatles/George Harrison’s “When My Guitar Gently Weeps” down to its rawest form. Ghost would later take the idea into The Wu’s 8 Diagrams with the help of Erykah Badu and some extra dressing from The RZA.
“Gorilla Hood” sees him take on a burly wall of strings and winning, while he repeats the trick of “Holla” on “No No No.” Rapping right on top of Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)”, Ghost easily slides into the song’s sidewalk reggae flavors.
While the inclusion of these tracks would no doubt have further enhanced Pretty Toney’s greatness (as would the cutting of the Missy Elliott collaborative club jam “Tush,” the one song here that doesn’t work), this still might well be Ghost’s quintessential record. While it lacks the traditional Wu sound of Iron-Man, the raw nastiness of Supreme Clientele and the sweeping scope of Fishscale (which, for the record, did not move the kind of units that Ghost had surely hoped), it does sound like his most effortless. And there’s a genius in creating something as essential as Pretty Toney when you sound like you’re barely trying.