About halfway through Ghostface Killah’s latest album, rap’s most loved mad culinary professional takes a most earned moment to reflect on his place in the zeitgeist by throwing himself a party. Framed as it is by the ambient noises of red-carpet door policy enforcement (“You guys smell like weed, forget it” being a notable amusement sample) and featuring Ghostface in the guise of an awards-show host spieling off a list of the current stars of contemporary black music, pausing for witty commercial breaks instead of choruses, “White Linen Affair (Toney Awards)” is marvelous fun—and a nifty metatextual trick as well. What sounds on first listen like a bit of a lark is actually a pretty complex construction, Ghostface acknowledging his frontrunner status by virtue of name-checking his thoroughbred peers and stitching such braggadocio into a unique hybrid of song and skit. It’s an excellent digest of all the reasons why Mr. Killah is so great: clever in its concept and executed flawlessly, voyeuristically profane, and urgently funky. The track manages to be simultaneously genre-bending and endearingly disposable.
Sadly, it’s also in many ways the most ambitious song on a record that might lean just a little too far toward the “predictable” element of Ghostface’s reputation for being predictably awesome. Not that it’s a bad listen: Ferraris still have some growl in their engines when they’re running on cruise control, after all. The Big Doe Rehab features wide-ranging but thematically coherent production that furthers and deepens Ghostface’s penchant for gritty, sweaty takes on funk, and the man’s voice remains a rasp capable of carving out memorable spaces within even the most notably maximal tracks. Toney Stark has earned these laurels, and it’s fine for him to rest on them a little, but the album nevertheless suffers in comparison to its more memorably, nihilistically, soulfully journalistic predecessor, last year’s masterful Fishscale. Tracks like the triumphant “We Celebrate,” the skanking “Shakey Dog Starring Lolita,” and the malevolent, grinding “Toney Sigel” would have more impact if Ghostface hadn’t already produced several album’s worth of music that resemble them substantively. The ethos underlying this album seems to be: Why fix what ain’t broken?
Ghostface is no different from other crazy capitalists like Jeff Koons, except his money-printing factory involves immaculately crafted post-millennial drug-rap instead of ceramic puppies. Good on him for the business model. But it’s impossible not to notice that the real highlights here are all the off-the-wall moments: the actual plaintive emotion of “I’ll Die For You,” which flips a beautiful sample into something cleanly soulful, the aforementioned award show meta workout, and the shockingly, effectively tense quiet storm cheese of “Killa Lipstick” (featuring an equally surprising command performance by the suddenly revitalized Method Man, who manages to actually upstage his more talented fellow Wu banger).
Ghostface has built one of hip-hop’s more reliably satisfying brands out of the sound that predominates on Rehab, and his fans will find a lot to like here. But given that a relevant part of his appeal has always been his eccentricity and willingness to take risks, a record mostly defined by his adherence to the tried and true is bound to feel like a bit of a copout. The brand emerges unscathed, but without any of the iconoclastic vibrancy listeners might look forward to. It’s enough to make you hope that Ghostface junks the original recipe in favor of some new seasonings next time out. Or at least takes a page from the Jigga playbook and crafts an unofficial soundtrack to next summer’s Iron Man movie. Hey, a critic can dream, right? Let’s just hope that Ghostface can keep dreaming too.