Art by Alex Wright
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Dean Van Nguyen played the speaker, sipping on Kahlua.
It begins with words from the Ghost Faced Killer. The presence of his cinematic forefather brings a sense of continuity and balance to Dennis Coles’ latest manifesto. Over two-and-a-half decades since the kid from Stapleton (“where the ambulances don’t come”) took on the name of this stone-cold malefactor of kung fu joint The Mystery of Chess Boxing aka Ninja Checkmate, he summons his spirit to open new album Ghostface Killahs, and fire a few flying kicks to the vultures who may have seen the lukewarm reception to his recent work and been expecting a creative corpse. “I bet you’d forgotten me,” goes Ghost Faced Killer in the weathered old audio. “Maybe thought I was dead.” As a retort to anyone whose questioned Coles’ creative life force over the past few years, it gets the message across.
What a time for Coles to find Ghost Face Killer and, as a consequence, to find Ghostface Killah. Given how prominent his collaborators have been on his recent projects, you could argue that this record is Ghost’s first true solo album since 2010 Apollo Kids, the final record of his brilliant peak. Teaming up with Adrian Younge seemed a good idea on paper but both instalments of Twelve Reasons to Die suffered from a lack of chemistry, and uninspiring writing. Sour Soul was extremely cool, but even a half-focused Ghost was always going to sound great on Badbadnotgood’s stoned grooves. I don’t really know what The Lost Tapes is but it came and went like a flash and doesn’t really feel canon. In contrast, Ghostface Killahs feels part of a more traditional album cycle, with a well-plotted build up and huge effort put into the visuals. Though guest-heavy, and with a relative unknown in Danny Caiazzo handling most of the beats, you feel Ghost’s presence in the director’s chair.
With all that said, the narrative demands I anoint this record a glorious return to form. But Ghostface Killahs is only kind of, sort of a comeback. He might sound more engaged than on previous projects but Ghost’s flow and lyrics still aren’t as consistently sharp as they once were. Take “Burner to Burner”: over the fuzzy guitars, Tony Starks drops feeble threats like, “On the red carpet, still clean your clock like a janitor” before adding a non sequitur—“Favorite ‘Pac joint was ‘I Ain’t Mad at Cha’”—and, finally, punctuating these weak bars with a homophobic slur.
Other ideas feel half-baked. On “Fly Everything,” Ghost drops the line, “If Chi-Town is Chiraq, Staten Island is Beirut.” It’s an intriguing set-up that’s begging for Ghost to go deeper and describe his home borough with his own indomitable, diamond-clear detail. Instead, they’re his final words on the track. When Shawn Wigs grabs the mic to come in on the chorus, it’s hard not to feel your heart sink a little.
The frustration of these misses is particularly sharp because there are moments on the album when Ghost puts it all together. With its prominent soul sample and thumping drum machines, “Flex” is a dead-ringer for a The College Dropout-era Kanye West beat and Ghost lays out some nice opulent verses (“Flex ice water stones as long as baguettes/The new joint escalator piece, we flooded the steps”). “New World” is a funky slice of 1970s cool with Eamon (yes Eamon!) singing like a grizzled old revolutionary.
The dramatic piano keys and stifling drums of “Party Over Here” offer a suitable backdrop for Ghost’s tales of street-level criminality, while “Pistol Smoke” sees him describing hold-ups, vicious threats, and his “47 cocaine connects out in Monaco.” The language is never quite as mind-bending as it was on Supreme Clientele or Fishscale but Ghost is still capable of flooding the canvas with rich detail.
That chasm between the old and new Ghost is most clearly laid out on “The Chase.” A chase anthem heavily in the vein of “Run,” from The Pretty Toney Album, the high-energy orchestration, sound of sirens, and Ghost’s relentless flow captures the energy of a desperate sprint away from the cops. Still, it can’t quite emulate the nature immediacy, the desperate energy, the distressed nature of “Run.” Maybe it’s unfair to expect that.
So, awoken from a period of creative cryostasis, Ghostface Killah has made a no more than decent rap record. Ghostface Killahs could be the sound of Ironman slowly regaining his strength. It’s entirely possible that his next album could featuring nothing but songs as hot as “Flex” and “Tones’s Rap,” from Sour Soul, and his guest spot on Wiki’s “Made For This.” As it is, though, Dennis Coles is still with us, still making solid music, still showing glimpses of greatness. And that’s not nothing. Sometimes the existence of villains makes the world a better place.
Dean Van Nguyen wrote the book on Tony Starks. You can buy Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah here and here.