July 24th, 2014
‘Six Degrees’ (music by BadBadNotGood, guest verse by Danny Brown):
I hope Ghostface keeps making music with live bands, because this collaboration with hip-hop/punk/jazz trio BadBadNotGood is like a signpost pointing to a better record yet to come, one where he’s allowed to follow his cracked muse down whatever back alleys it might take him, with a band fit to follow in hot pursuit.
Last year’s Twelve Reasons to Die album was lush as hell itself, and it had an unshakeable fatalistic logic with which to lead you there – when the album finishes and rolls straight into its instrumental mix, it feels like the natural conclusion to this story of ridiculous bloodshed, like a walk around the movie set except that it’s empty and you suspect someone’s had to bury a lot of bodies to get it that way.
Still, as glorious as Adrian Younge’s orchestration is, the overarching conceit – as a expanded in creaky, 90s style in the tie-in comic!- constrains Ghost’s talent as much as it showcases it. After all, this is a man whose best albums demonstrate that crack rap can sell any detail (Fishscale) and find a way to make any words work for its hustle (Supreme Clientele), and whose penchant for off-key singing can never quite obscure the ragged, soulful quality of his voice (as best displayed in the sudden mood shifts of The Pretty Toney Album). The catalogue of brutality Ghostface and his Wu-brethren provide on 12RTD isn’t without interest – lines like “Blow out your lungs/See you’ve been smoking for years” are crude and vivid and funny, and the fact that the gang war is prompted by the structural racism of the mob gives the story an edge it doesn’t quite make use of – but Mr GFK only really comes alive on the sweet-then-sour love songs in the middle of the album.
On ‘Centre of Attraction’ and ‘Enemies All Around Me’, Ghost’s voice cracks as internal conflict enters his world for the first time on this album – external conflict being something of a non-issue for a super-competent gang boss who can overcome death in order to take revenge on his enemies. These songs see Ghost’s character (Tony Starks, natch) wading through both his own deep reserves of sexism (“Bitches is sneaky, triflin’, and not to be trusted”) and the waves of suspicion that are coming towards him from his crew while trying to keep faith that his girl isn’t just setting him up for a fall. In typical Ghostface style, he is able to convince himself of this only by way of conjuring up a visual that’s as striking as it is unprompted: “That’s my lady, she would never backstab or double cross me/Standing butt naked in the storm, sipping the frosty.”
Of course, this script being predetermined, it turns out that his sexist instincts were correct: Twelve Reasons To Die’s complexities and ambiguities are almost all in the flow of Younge’s arrangements, which leave no room for the observation as people as people. Everyone in this story is defined purely by their role, and the role given to the only women in this story is not a good one. The fixed nature explains the central mystery of this production, namely how Twelve Reasons To Die can still be a good album even though it’s not a good Ghostface Killah album. Younge’s carefully orchestrated carnage makes Ghost into a straight man, for possibly the first time in his career. Having been briefly awoken by the possibility of finding love in this loveless world, Ghost’s extraordinary imagination quietly slinks into the background for the rest of the album, showing itself only in a flurry of doubt at the end of his last song.
That’s okay: the operatic drama of the music plays out to its inevitable confusion, leaving Ghostface Killah as the last man standing, The King of the Wasteland.
If that doesn’t sound like a particularly stirring victory to you, then hey – I’m right there with you. I don’t want to strain this point too much, but Twelve Reasons to Die was released a week and a half after Margaret Thatcher died. Listening to its conclusion, I thought back to scenes of people celebrating Thatcher’s death in George Square with fresh clarity, and saw them for what they were: a pointless, thwarted moment of release, an attempt to claim victory in the ruins of a defeat.
Thatcher’s dead, but she still defines the politics of the United Kingdom; reborn as the Ghostface Killah, Tony Starks can avenge his own death until the end of time, but he can never stop being dead.
Ghostface Killah’s performance at the Arches on 15th July 2014 was frustrating in an entirely different way. Shouting scrappy verses from Wu-Tang classics and cuts from his first two solo albums alongside a few random nineties rap standards, Ghost and his crew (his son Sun God, instantly beloved by the crowd; Sheek Louch, who nobody loves; DJ Technique, who is a DJ) put on a good, old-school hip-hop show right up until the point where they spent too much time dancing with girls on stage – sexism being a structural expectation here every bit as much as it was in Twelve Reasons to Die - at which point a certain amount of the energy disappeared out the door with punters desperate for a smoke.
In focussing on his most obviously popular material, Ghostface thwarted his own crooked muse, which thrives when distracted to the point of digression. The logic of the show meant that it was still an enjoyable gig, just as Twelve Reasons to Die is an enjoyable album, but I was still a little disappointed when the lights went up.
My version of Ghostface is more like a character in a classical tragedy, trapped in his story but incapable of acting like that’s the case; the man on stage was too smooth and casual an operator for any of that, too happy to play his part. I shouldn’t hold that against him, but I might anyway.
While it lacks the ominous structure of Younge’s score, the Apollo Brown remix of 12 Reasons to Die brings out the grain of Ghost’s voice in a way the original simply doesn’t. Despite being a traditionally produced hip-hop record (Wu-Tang subvariant), The Brown Tape feels “more liver”, to use the man’s own words, than its source material, which actually was performed by a band.
Brown’s version of ‘I Declare War’ is case in point. The horn-stutter is an familiar for good reason, and the juxtaposition of a vocal that sounds like it has several centuries worth of dust on it against Ghost’s hoarse bark on the chorus makes him sound a lot more mortal than he does anywhere on Younge’s mix. Which is the point of Younge’s mix, obviously, but then again that’s not a point I’m bound to agree with.
Going back to that BadBadNotGood collaboration, ‘Six Degrees’ doesn’t exactly stretch Ghost as a lyricist – his first verse is recycled from The Man With The Iron Fists soundtrack, though it sounds better here than it did there – but it does show just how good he can sound when he’s got a backing band who’re fit to match him.
The fact that the first verse has been re-purposed means that there’s nothing in there that’s quite as dazzling as the way Danny Brown rides out the drum clicks when the beat switches. As always, Brown makes the most of his guest spot, setting up a vivid scene in which some of his goons get in the way of Danny’s attempt to watch his favourite scene from Juice – it’s the DJ battle, so he threatens to scratch them. Compared to his rhyming partner on this song, Brown’s still got something to prove, and like the bold misprision of ‘Mighty Healthy’ that he opens his verse with, the picture he paints here makes it just that little bit harder to forget him when he’s gone.
Brown also turns out to be a great hype man (“I don’t know what you know/But if you know what I know/You’d better be ghost before I get Ghost”), and by the time Ghostface comes back in for a second, more agitated verse you’re ready to be freshly impressed by his scabby self-mythologising. I now realise that the line is “Stappleton niggas keep their guns in strip bags”, but I prefer the way I originally heard it – “Stappleton niggas keep their guns in shit bags”, an all time great gross boast!
He’s not been at the centre of what’s going on in hip-hop for a long time, but Grampa Ghost is still capable of making his obsession with Clarkes Wallabes sound like a proper hardman’s pursuit. Songs like ‘Six Degrees’ give me hope that he might yet be inspired to find new alley’s to run down in his beloved Clarkes. Can he hear the seemingly endless movement of his own best verses reflected in BadBadNotGood’s grooves? If so, does this not make him want to show them who’s boss?
Let’s hope there’s more like this to come: the alternative is just a little bit too close to death.