It bears mentioning at the outset that Ghostdeini the Great, the rarities and greatest hits compilation from Ghostface Killah, is unnecessary and unasked for. The album, a collection of deep cuts, undisputed classics, and lame remixes, with one unreleased track and a tossed off holiday jingle thrown in to provide currency, will do little to distract diehards who continue to put the forever delayed Ghostface-MF Doom collaboration Swift and Changeable as well as Raekwon’s decade-in-the-making Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, in which Ghostface will likely have as important a role as he did in the original, at the top of their wishlists. But in a December unusually barren of high-profile rap releases, 60 minutes of Ghostface Killah is hardly something to complain about. Seriously, a rap fan’s loved one could do much worse when it comes to stuffing stockings with hip-hop albums.
Another benefit to the release of Ghostdeini is that the album gives us a chance to consider the career of the rapper best known for wildly colored wallabee shoes, mush-mouthed lyrical majesty, and savvy 7-11 cost benefits analyses. From the blastoff of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), initiated by a Ghostface verse that rhymed “elephant tusk” with “Egyptian musk” and referenced Richard Nixon, the P.L.O., and Waco, Texas, to the cinematic coke-rap of 2006’s Fishscale, Ghostface Killah has elevated the Wu ethos of verbal warfare to heights of beautiful opacity. Indeed, the aesthetic tenets of RZA’s Wu-Tang ideology—kung-fu dialogue, five-percenter mysticism, harsh production techniques—fit least comfortably with Ghostface, whose solo output has tended more toward lush samples of ‘70s soul and kaleidoscopic, unorthodox lyric sheets. More than any of the Wu-Tang’s nine other heads, Ghostface has been most successful when striking out on his own, and though Method Man may have been the group’s marquee star at the outset, it is Ghostface who has by far had the strongest, most consistent solo career. One could even make the case, amazingly, that no other New York rapper excluding Jay-Z has had a better decade than him.
A typical Ghostface verse runs on psychedelic, nonsense vocabulary that is somehow scripted onto a hardboiled street narrative—the hip-hop equivalent of Lewis Carroll caught in a Raymond Chandler novel or Tristram Shandy being pushed by a gangster down an M.C. Escher staircase. “Apollo Kids,” a standout cut featuring Raekwon that was originally released on 2002’s Supreme Clientele and which is included on Ghostdeini, packs into its action-packed montage a scuffle inside the Beacon Theatre, a meal at a place called Paul’s Pastry Rack, and a chase through the streets of Manhattan in addition to multiple Wizard of Oz references, a talking cow, and an NFL highlight reel. Whether one is able to perfectly follow each step in the drama is beside the point; Ghostface’s dreamscape is utterly absorbing, a medley pasta sauce—“This rappin’s like ziti,” boasts the chorus—mixing a host of contradictory ingredients that is unbelievably delicious.
Joining “Apollo Kids” on Ghostdeini in the category of solo album classics is the autobiographical mom-tribute “All That I Got Is You” (full of vivid illustrations of inner-city poverty that would put most reality-repping rappers to shame: “Seven o’clock, plucking roaches out the cereal box/Some shared the same spoon, watching Saturday cartoons”), Fischale‘s Wu-posse cut “9 Milli Bros” (arguably better than anything off 8 Diagrams), and the guilt-plagued murder saga “Walk Around” (off last year’s The Big Doe Rehab, which puts Ghostface in the role of a corner-store Lady Macbeth: “Flashbacks to me blowin’ his brains out/All I remember’s my shirt, I couldn’t get them goddamned stains out”).
The significant helping of remixes is not to be condemned, necessarily, as Ghostdeini is more than anything a remix album, but it’s not exactly to be cheered either. One way to think of a remix is “same verses/different beats.” Anyone who listens to hip-hop radio, though, knows that the far more prevalent remix is the one in which new verses are tacked on to the original beats. Instead of reimaginings of songs, with this approach we get sequels to songs, and the remix-as-sequel concept unfortunately dominates Ghostdeini: the police pursuit story of “Run” is extended to include chapters by Freeway, Raekwon, and Lil Wayne; Malice of the Clipse is allowed a chance to add his own coke-dealer’s tale to “Kilo”; and Ice Cube storms the party on “Be Easy.” All of these have different Ghostface verses, and the guest spots are mostly on-point, but none outperforms its original. The only remix here that could be considered essential is the new version of Fishscale‘s “The Champ,” where the only real difference is that the Rocky-like monologues have been thankfully excised from the chorus.
As for the new stuff, there’s hardly enough of it to merit much discussion. Rap fans making their annual Christmas mix will be glad to have “Ghostface Xmas” to play alongside cuts from Jim Jones’s holiday albums and Christmas on Death Row, but the rest of us will quickly bore of hearing Ghostface rap over “Carol of the Bells.” And “Slept on Tony” is a brilliant exercise in the commingling of Ghostface’s current role as a rapper, his former role as a criminal, and his imaginary role as a superhero, but it does nothing to make the rest of the album any less perfunctory. So, there you go, Ghostface, you’ve given us time to reflect on your weird, surprisingly lengthy career while enjoying some choice and not-so-choice songs from your panoply of albums. But our principal demands remain: Drag MF Doom out of hiding, and bring forth Swift and Changeable. Light a fire beneath Raekwon, and help him hurry up with Cuban Linx II. And for goodness’s sake, don’t ever stop chasing your wacky, golden-tongued muse.