The announcement of The Big Doe Rehab came out of the blue during the buildup to 8 Diagrams — courtesy of a barebones YouTube clip, just Ghostface Killah mouthing off into the camera — and almost immediately eclipsed the carefully cultivated buzz for the Wu-Tang Clan’s comeback bid. One Clanman standing larger than the crew might not sit well with some, but it’s not necessarily unnatural; RZA’s game plan from day one was to fashion the Wu as a launching pad for his ridiculously talented stable of emcees. As long as the iconic Wu symbol — "See the logo? A monument in hip-hop/ Carved out, in the giant landscape, of broken rocks" — is repped, all fine and well. But it wasn’t supposed to be Ghost. And it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
But in 2007, this is how it is: Ghostface’s top-dog status is so assured that it casts a pall over his crew. And worse, Ghost doesn’t seem to mind. The internal squabbles — over Rock the Bells tour payments; the quality of RZA’s latter-day production; competing release dates — come off as the emcee half-heartedly, carelessly sabotaging his relationship with his brethren. Effectively, he’s pulling rank.
And the sad truth is, he’s right to. 8 Diagrams has leaked, and it has proved to be so much more than just "not embarrassing." But without one RZA beat, The Big Doe Rehab etches out another dizzying chapter of the Wu’s good name, byline Tony Starks, and further states Ghost’s case for posterity: It’s looking increasingly possible that when all is said and done, the man’s solo work will eclipse that of the Wu collective.
He comes again with his trademark overcooked bluster: gruff but sentimental; genuinely sensitive but terribly crass; helplessly frustrated; and violent, but always for the sake of a tale. On the microphone he’s a fleshed-out character (and never a caricature, the bane of radio hip-hop’s current existence.)
First single "Celebrate" illuminates that character well. As Ghost ticks off potential reasons for revelry, whether practical ("all my goons just came home") or starry-eyed yearning ("Tony Starks just won the Oscar, ya’ll"), his blue-collar cheer shines through. I wonder if the latter note might draw the ear of part-time thespian Method Man — the Wu’s original prodigal son, a tall, handsome, animated character, never averse to singing hooks (see bonus track "Killa Lipstick"). Does the dude ever shake his head, remembering that this was his rightful destiny as the Clan’s reigning prince?
Meth pops up a few times, more noticeably on the excellent "Yolanda’s House," produced by Anthony "Ant-Live" Singleton, alongside ol’ pal Raekwon. (Other than Beanie Sigel and the lovely R&B singer Chrisette Michelle, all guests are affiliates of the Wu or Ghost’s crew, Theodore Unit.) Over a drawled synth violin, a paranoiac Ghost flees the cops, high and addled, dodging barking dogs and nosey neighbors, somehow winding up in a woman’s apartment (the titular Yolanda, we assume) to relay his tale. She prepares him a meal of fried fish sticks, then cracks a Dutch while Ghost pleasures her manually. But the noises of walkie-talkies interrupt him before he can find a condom, and he’s forced to flee again, eventually bumping into Meth mid-coitus elsewhere in the building. Which, of course, cracks him up.
It’s such a simple pleasure to hear Ghost on a straight narrative. A silly, nonsensical mini-drama, it’s something perhaps from the hyperactive mind of a teenage Dennis Coles ("first I’m gonna be running from the cops, right, then I meet a chick and then, uh, we get high, and then I see my boy and then we bounce"). It’s that subtle smirk that thankfully carries over to the heavier stuff too, like the street story "Shakey Dog Starring Lolita." An accomplice named Frankie’s been dropped, and Ghost and Rae team up for vengeance. The target? A murderous, bowlegged lesbian whose "tits are bananas."
Ghostface’s beat selection is impeccable. On Baby Grand-produced "Rec Room Therapy," an exaggeratedly deep voice exhorts the emcee to "Get money, Ghost/ Get money." But then a light flute loop, floating to the top on every other count, wonderfully undercuts the put-upon aggressiveness. And as the track segues into "The Prayer," a pained gospel interlude from a fellow named Ox, and then the alternately confused, pleading, and pissed-off "I’ll Die for You," we realize we’re dealing with a man at the sustained peak of his abilities.
He’s eclipsed his crew. There’s no drama. It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be this way. But it is.
Album stream: http://www.defjam.com/site/artist_home.php?artist_id=485