Ghostface Killah is a rapper’s rapper
There is no such thing as a Greatest Of All Time rapper. I know we all love to have that debate, because rap is a competitive sport and every rapper worth their salt needs to have that competitive mind state to aim for the number 1 spot, but all it takes is a step back to realize the discussion is pretty ridiculous.
Let’s take a look at some of the usual contenders brought up in the G.O.A.T. discussion. Jay-Z? From his debut album on, his approach has been highly formulaic, resulting in albums that tick all the right boxes to get sales, but lack musical consistency and confidence throughout in anything other than the rhymes, with ‘The Blueprint’ being the sole exception. At the end of the day, Jay-Z lacks an Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… or an Illmatic in his discography. Nas, then? Despite his near unmatched level of poetic lyricism, Nas has been tinkering with his image – or rapping persona – too much since his phenomenal first album, from crime boss to late ‘90s Bad Boy-style pop rapper back to Real Hip-Hop to political, Afrocentric figure. This lends him an air of disingenuity that, to me at least, will never leave him.
How about Eminem? He might be a rare, rapping virtuoso, capable of insane, multisyllabic deliveries that rewrite the rules of rap, but he lacks the ability to make songs that have staying power. I don’t know about you, but after I have distilled the lyricism of an Eminem song, I always find that there’s very little to return to musically. Bluntly: I can’t jam to Eminem songs. Lil’ Wayne? His rhyming skills don’t come close to those the former three possess. LL Cool J? Bwahaha. While the durability of his pure rapping ability is worthy of admiration, making music has not been a priority to him since the mid ‘90s and his slew of albums following that era are proof of this. B.I.G.? Very sadly, he never got to create a body of work that would fit the criteria.
In short, all the rapping greats are flawed in one way or another, excel in areas that the others are lacking and lack in areas the others excel in. There is no rapper that’s the total package. This is why I don’t get involved in G.O.A.T. discussions. But whenever I hear or read people making a case for why their favorite rapper should be on the throne, it’s very rare that a certain, sometimes masked, Staten Island MC gets mentioned.
“He’s not rapping like this no more.” – Action Bronson, 2015
Action could have meant “He’s not using this specific rhyme style of his that I’m biting anymore” in a bizarre ‘fair use, copyright expired’ sort of argument, but he apologized, so at this point we have to take it as “He’s not bringing it anymore.” And in that case he’s extremely wrong.
When I got 36 Seasons at the tail end of last year, it just honestly blew my mind: Ghostface Killah, consistently and frequently bringing you dope albums since 1996. Not counting the other Wu-Tang albums he has heavily contributed to, remix albums or side projects with his crew, Ghostface has released 13 studio albums and all of them have been in the good (More Fish, Apollo Kids) – great (Bulletproof Wallets, The Pretty Toney Album, 12 Reasons to Die) – classic (Ironman, Supreme Clientele) range. I even vouch for Wizard of Poetry, despite my initial skepticism. Given the history with R&B collaborations that Ghostface Killah has, I never should have doubted that project, even though it probably isn’t what a large portion of his fans wanted.
Lyrically, Ghostface Killah never falters. His writing includes the type of out there details that most other rappers lack the imagination for to include, bringing his story telling to life with startling vividness. Coupled with his raw, intense emotional-but-tough, soulful delivery and the many, many styles he has exhibited throughout his musical career, I have no problem placing him on the same level as a Jay-Z or Nas in terms of pure rapping ability. Musically, Ghostface almost never rhymes over a wack beat or participates in wack collaborations. In the later half of his career he has worked with a lot of lesser known – or upcoming – producers, but he’s always selected the best and most fitting arrangements in a recurrent musical theme of old soul with cinematic flair.
Via interviews with his friends and collaborators, it has been well documented that Ghostface truly, deeply cares about the music he’s putting out. Rap is not a hustle to him, he’s a lover of music. This is also why I don’t have any problems with a Theodore Unit-heavy collection of songs like More Fish, as the TU members have been handpicked by Ghostface from – among others – local rhyming talent from Stapleton projects. They might not be on his level, but Theodore can rhyme, from Trife’s venomous bite to the powerful, booming deliveries of Solomon Childs and son of Ghostface, Sun God. Good stuff, good stuff. And it’s precisely this level of caring – and his work ethic – that sets him apart from the rest.
For those that still would like to entertain dumbness and talk about G.O.A.T.s, I could grant that Ghostface, outside of his work with Wu-Tang, never saw the level of popular success the likes of Jay-Z enjoyed, but if that’s a criterion, we would have to include MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice into the conversation…and make it even dumber.