Album Review: Ghostface Killah – Set The Tone (Guns & Roses)

[Mass Appeal; 2024]

How did we get here? Time was, a new Ghostface Killah album was cause for celebration. He may not be able to lay claim to the crown jewel of the Wu-Tang solo material (most would likely say Liquid Swords, I’d give it to the Purple Tape) but with ODB having left us far too soon, he’s inarguably the most expressive, brazenly colorful rapper of the legendary bunch.

Yet, somehow, the man hasn’t released an album since 2019’s Ghostface Killahs, which was rather minor in its own right. I’d go further: coasting between collaborative albums for years now, I’d argue there hasn’t really been a proper Ghostface Killah album since 2010’s Apollo Kids. True, that project may have presented a relatively staid MC compared the bursting at the seams, near-manic creativity of his peak years, but it remained a strong entry into the canon.

In fact, many might point to the same year as to the time Ghostface stopped giving it his all. This was marked by the blatant post-OB4CL II cash in via the practically unfinished Wu-Massacre, released alongside equally “cut the check already” performances from co-stars Method Man and Raekwon.

This isn’t to say Ghost has never traded in minor albums, with Bulletproof Wallets and The Big Doe Rehab readily coming to mind as casual drops between bigger releases. There’s nothing wrong with that: not every album need be a “statement”, and you could always feel he was, at the very least, having fun with it. Even the still bizarre misfire that is 2009’s R&B experiment Ghostdini boasts a palpable playfulness and finds the rapper “trying something”.

To say the least, Set the Tone (Guns & Roses) – did it really need two titles? – finds the aging rapper in a very different place. Continuing his late career support of artists in need of a platform, Nas sought out his fellow New Yorker to work on this project, and given the artistic success the likes of Run the Jewels and Black Milk have enjoyed on Mass Appeal, the announcement was more than enough reason to have hope.

Alas, Ghostface appears to have approached Set the Tone as little more than an obligation. He’s always come to albums with some sense as to why he’s making it, or at least with that irresistibly zany flair, but here, he seems to have little energy for much beyond performing what his audience perceives as the kind of raps he “should” be doing.

To be a tad generous, it doesn’t begin as a disaster. Hearing Ghost trade bars with members from The Lox and The Diplomats on album opener “6 Minutes” is decent fun. However, electing Sheek Louch and Jim Jones as the representatives for each, respectively, is certainly a choice – were Jadakiss (or Styles P) and Cam’ron that busy? This “eh, I’ll take the nostalgia” energy continues as he spars with Method Man on the fine but forgettable “Pair of Hammers”.

Alas, this feeling of diminishing returns only grows more tangible, and quickly, too. For an MC known for spiraling off in unpredictable directions it’s all tragically routine. It feels akin to a master painter confining himself to coloring within the lines of a children’s coloring book. To be fair to Ghostface, this album may well not sound so bad coming from a minor rapper.

Yet, a minor rapper he is certainly not, and it can’t help but feel deeply discouraging to hear a legend sound so damn tired of toys he seems to have outgrown.

“Plan B” is both an uncomfortable anthem to encouraging a partner to use birth control and a dull, plodding ploy. Far worse still is “Trap Phone”, bafflingly tacked on towards the album’s end. It feels like a half-hearted attempt to reach the current generation of rap listeners, the sort of song sure to offend his old head fans, baffle and amuse millennials, and gain nothing but an eyeroll from the kids actually out there genuinely inspired to make songs of this nature. Chucky Hollywood, the guest whom I won’t pretend to know on “Trap Phone”, speaks to a further issue painfully present on Set the Tone: featured artist clutter.

In his best days, Ghostface tended to simply feature his own crew or an inspiring appearance worthy of excitement in just the right place, on just the right beat. While Meth and Raekwon do appear, they’re merely passing through, compulsory nods to Wu stans. Those who remain present a larger problem. Ghost has never needed a feature. Benefited from a great one? Naturally. A Wu-Tang posse cut still rivals the best out there (I’ll no doubt throw on “Buck 50” or “9 Milli Bros.” once I finish my final – and I do mean final – listen to this album), but Ghostface has always been entirely able to rely solely on himself. 

The guests on Set the Tone often feel present simply to help fill the runtime. For one thing, there’s the autopilot fluff hooks, which do nothing but restrict Ghost to uninspired love ballads. Shaun Wiah’s empty crooning on “Touch You” guides him to a nadir that includes ‘bars’ such as “Thank me now, baby, on some Drake shit” (probably not the best time for that reference, my man). Then there’s the uninspired, limp half-attempts at genre crossover fare, from the aforementioned cloud rap of “Trap Phone” to the hesitant, oddly muted reggaeton of “Shots”. 

Finally, there’s the list of people who really don’t deserve to be here. Nas and AZ make for fun guests (even when the latter is relegated to a track unworthy of the verse he provides), but bringing along Kanye West and Ja Rule in 2024? The former pairing surely would have had folk hype 10 or 15 years ago, why now? Ja would have been painful in any year, but him popping by post-Fyre Fest is nearly hilarious.

There are, sadly, very few moments on Set the Tone that don’t feel phoned in, awkward, or outright bored. Even the skits feel like a forced attempt to recapture a bit of Ghostface’s zaniness. Hearing him list his favorite cereals is undeniably a tad amusing, but feels like a bland cartoon version of him shooting the shit with his crew on skits past. This says plenty about the overall affair. A man who once wouldn’t have been caught dead without flying off at the handle feels like he’s just clocking in for another day at the office: anxiously eyeing the clock during his verses, ready to go the hell home. In fairness, he shouts out the approach of the long-planned Supreme Clientele sequel (he once said it’d drop in February 2022) towards the end of this album, so it’s all clearly a preamble. Yet, if this was meant to, ahem (I’m sorry), set the tone for a sequel to arguably his best LP, it is uninspiring at best, and more than verging on worrisome.