Hiphop was born in the Bronx, and ever since that birth three decades ago, New Yorkers won't let you forget it. But ever since rap's hot spot moved from the Boogie Down to Compton in the early '90s, NYC has had problems with other burgs eclipsing its status in the public eye. The reign of hiphop from below the Mason-Dixon in recent years has threatened Gotham's dominance, as its premier MCs are at their least unified. The big hiphop mags—all based in the Apple—scream from their headlines, "Why doesn't New York matter anymore?" and casual listeners wonder the same thing. This is, of course, because the city's top MCs, struggling for relevance, have lost hold of NYC's rap identity; stands to reason, then, that its proper savior is one who's kept it uncompromisingly New York, even when it's been unfashionable to do so. Ladies and Germs, I present to you NYC's champion: Tony Starks, the muthafuckin' Ghostface Killah.
This is architect music/Verbal street opera...
Yes, true believers... The proper savior for the city is not in fact some 19-year-old, airbrushed-T-shirt-clad, mix-tape rapper who was in his infancy when hiphop began; rather, it's a thirtysomething MC who wears a bathrobe outdoors, spits about baked ziti, and began rapping when hiphop was in its infancy. It's hardly surprising that Ghost holds down NYC the best in its hour of need; after all, Wu-Tang Clan were instrumental in bringing the city back in the mid-'90s. The Wu themselves are firmly planted on Pretty Tony's broad back, and he's almost single-handedly kept their legacy intact for years. Their blueprint—and by extension, East Coast rap's—has been Ghostface's game plan from jumpstreet: dusted, concrete beats with the patina of pissy project stairways, coupled with raps alternately arcane and aggro.
It's obvious nothing's changed when you hear "The Champ" off of Ghost's latest, the eagerly anticipated Fishscale. "Hell, you ain't been hungry since you won that belt!" growls Abe Vigoda off that track's intro, just daring our hero Tony Starks to knock out his detractors.
I'm raw, I'm rugged and raw! I repeat, if I die/My seed'll be ill like me...
New York rap has always placed a premium on "rawness," and there are few, if any, in the five boroughs who come rawer than Ghostface. His always-dependable hunger, passion, and intensity on the mic is both a testament to, and remarkable in spite of, his elder-statesman status. Few solo MCs have the measure of consistency Ghostface's catalog represents—aside from the spotty Bulletproof Wallets, one could make a damn compelling argument for Ghost having three classics under his heavyweight belt.
Fishscale's production ethic owes most of its grit and soul to a squad of producers renowned for the uncut rawness: the legendary Pete Rock, the late J Dilla, the Beat Conductor Madlib, and Ghost's comic-book contemporary MF Doom. The result is as cold, hard, and subterranean as any of Ghost's output. It almost seems as if the lukewarm response to his masterful, if accessible, The Pretty Toney Album has prompted the Wally Champ to come twice as savage this time out. Doom's production in particular proves an apt replacement for the RZA's brand of psychotic soul, bringing the best out of Ghost, who in turn brings out the entire Wu—including lost brother ODB—for the rugged posse cut "9 Milli Brothers," on which Ghost's barked command to "be nice to the crackheads" might make you drop your Guinness. The vintage vibe persists as Chef Raekwon joins Tony on several cuts, continuing the coked-out crime narratives of Rae's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx to chilling effect. Ghost's long tradition of tender reminiscences also continues with "Whip You with a Strap," where Dilla's shambling soul sample underscores the Killah's memories of childhood corporal punishment.
As mass-market rap culture becomes increasingly indistinguishable from prison and strip-club culture, and hiphop music gets dumber by the minute, it's gratifying to know that some MCs still rely on skills and innovation, rather than hype and signature ad-libs. Between the glut of boring backpack MCs and one-dimensional coke rappers, there's no one better than the Iron Man to rescue New York hiphop's sorry state.
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