[Def Jam; 2009]

With conservatism and traditionalism increasingly encroaching on mainstream rap (see: Raekwon, Jay-Z) Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City is a bit of a jarring release. Ghostface Killah, one of America’s most reliable rappers, sets out to make an R&B album; hearts sink, tears are shed, tantrums are thrown. It’s especially disheartening after the show-stealing guest spots on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II. But The Pretty Toney Album proved that Ghost could do commercialism just fine, and thankfully this is not a rappa-ternt-sanga affair in the vein of T-Pain (or Kanye) but rather Ghost waxing romantically over soul-tinged beats. It’s not the risky shift in direction that some might have feared (he only attempts “singing” twice), nor is it exceptionally strong material.

The first two glimpses of this album were disastrous; “Baby” and “She’s A Killah” both feature hopelessly passé autotune choruses, where the plugin is abused at an almost atonal level. The rhymes are lazy and the otherwise interesting production (bhangra influences on the latter track!) is derailed by the awful choruses. This is a pattern that shows up time after time on the Wizard of Poetry; serviceable Ghost verses interrupted by indefensible hooks that are repeated ad nauseum. Nor is there a star-studded list of guest singers to at least make it appealing; Ghostface, in terms of popularity, is a b-list artist and so he gets b-list singers like “Shareefa,” “Jack Night,” and a unremarkable-sounding Estelle.

Clearly, this is not an ideal Ghostface album; he’s not always in his comfort zone and his “dirty talk” can be uncomfortably extreme. The hooks are repetitive and often grating, and the production sounds like desperate capitalization on old trends; but the star here is not those faceless hook singers, it’s Ghost. Even when the production is crumbling around him, he stays strong – giving us alternately funny, violent, and pornographic lyrics delivered in his inimitable flow. No one listens to Ghostface for the beats, though Wizard of Poetry occasionally seems to forget this, on songs such as “Lonely” and “Paragraphs of Love” where the hook dominates the song and the rapping feels more like an afterthought. Closing track “Goner” (featuring an MJ-channelling Lloyd) is the exception, a fantastic track where the rap and the hook co-exist peacefully without infringing on each other’s respective territory.

The more typical rap tracks are the true meat of this album, which makes for a rather anorexic listening experience, certainly not a full meal. “Stapleton Sex” is a short, rapid-fire track in which Ghostface lays out his sexual prowess with excruciating detail, replete with moans and dialogue – I won’t bother reprinting any of it here. “Stay” features an almost-affectionate Ghost over a surprisingly effective chipmunk soul beat (imitation Kanye), and Ghost ups the syrup (sugar, not purple) ante even further on “Forever,” a enthralling song in which Ghostface alternates between loving devotion and misogyny, and the effortless transition between the two is both a little creepy and undeniably human. Moments like this make album worth revisiting.

The absolute highlight here is “Guest House,” featuring Mr. Starks sounding as angry – and horny – as ever. The song details our hero discovering his significant other cheating on him with the cable guy; a graphic fight ensues, but Ghost never loses grip of his wit: “That’s when I let off a shot/Back the fuck up/Snatched his covers/Have them lookin’ like black Adam & Eve/Some sinful lovers.” It’s a gripping moment that sounds unnervingly real, with a shaky Fabolous and a pleading wife, gunshots, et al. The visceral excitement is indicative of Ghost’s true potential, and it’s disappointing when the album winds down again.

Wizard of Poetry isn’t a disaster, but it’s largely unremarkable outside of its occasional moments of brilliance. It’s a relief to hear Ghostface back on the top of his game on “Guest House”, and even if he’s not always successful, the moments when he’s really on are enough to inspire hope. It’s apparent from Raekwon’s latest record that he’s still got all of that old fire, and Wizard makes it clear he’s not afraid of trying new things. Perhaps this more romantically-focused direction is more pragmatic than commercial; as Ghost said in a recent interview, “We in a fuckin’ recession… Ain’t nobody gettin’ no money!” Whatever he does next, he’ll probably make some mistakes along the way, but we’ll follow him as devoutly as ever. Few rappers have as much skill or as much integrity as Ghost, real name Dennis Coles; he’s an unforgettable and admirable force in hip-hop, and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.

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