Ghostface Killah was never the Wu-Tang Clan's most charismatic member (that'd be Method Man), perceived as the group's musical "brains" (that'd be the RZA), or the one most ensconced in the public imagination (that'd be, for better or worse, Ol' Dirty Bastard, or Osirus, or whatever he's calling himself this week). But Ghostface, who's recently dropped the "Killah" from his moniker, is the group's essence: neither indie nor mainstream, wordy to the point of garrulousness, cryptic to the point of self-parody, maudlin as hell. He doesn't ride the beat so much as bulldoze it in a big yellow Tonka truck. And ever since 2000's Supreme Clientele, he's been under the shadow of one of the best rap records ever made.
The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam), Ghost's fourth, is long awaited not just because of Def Jam's recent restructuring nightmares, but because everyone's been waiting for him to top Clientele ever since its follow-up, 2001's Bulletproof Wallets, failed to. Pretty Toney doesn't, either, but when he's on, Ghostface flows like a brook: nonstop babble, beautiful and occasionally boring. On "Run," the RZA redeems his string of rote productions with a beat like a lurching race down a dark hallway, and more crinkly, plastic soul breaks and spittle-flecked rhyme schemes abound on "Biscuits" and "Metal Lungies."
In many ways, Ghost is a man out of time. While it's nice to hear him get some radio/video dap on the Missy-assisted club cut "Tush," he sounds about as natural riding it as he would a Lil Jon beat. On numerous mixtapes, like this year's J-Love–mixed Hidden Darts II, Ghost rips shit over grainy, pause-button ish, and the next effect is the same as the more polished Toney. (The great exception is "Holla," reprised from Darts, on which Ghost rips over the Delfonics' "La-La Means I Love You"—not a loop, either, but the entire song.) Record labels collapsing? Commercial concerns? Rhyming on beat? Don't trouble me, son. This is a life's work unfolding.