Ghostface, The Pretty Toney Album

Though I’ve never been a big devotee of the Wu, I’ve fallen in love with Ghostface‘s latest, The Pretty Toney Album.
Judging from what I’ve read on fan websites and bulletin boards, the true Ghostface Killah fans don’t like this one as much as his earlier solo work, Ironman and Supreme Clientele. This seems to be because, in dropping the “Killah” from his name, Ghostface has changed the ratio between hard-headed thug narratives and squishy love songs, having less of the former and more of the latter. But for my part, this is precisely why I like Pretty Toney more than anything else Ghostface has ever done.
There are some great gangsta narratives on the album, particularly “Run” (produced by Wu mastermind RZA) with its urgency, speed and off-the-beat rhymes. But they are outweighed by songs like “It’s Over” (a eulogy for the thug life, which Ghostface has now outgrown) and “Save Me Dear” (redemption through a good woman’s love — corny and a bit patriarchal, but moving all the same) and the Missy Elliott collaboration “Tush” (a spunky, upbeat sex song, that many of the fans have denounced as lightweight and commercial, but whose beat I really like, not to mention Missy’s “if you ain’t slurpin’, then you better off jerkin’ “).
And, though I usually hate the “skits” that populate recent hip hop albums for some reason, the ones here work for me, in a slice-of-life meets comedic-exaggeration way).
What really makes the album work are the soul music samples that dominate most of its tracks. They aren’t sped up and chopped up as is often the case (in Ghostface’s earlier stuff and elsewhere) with soul samples in hip hop. Instead, we get them relatively intact. In at least one case — “Holla” — we get the sampling (if it can still be called that) of a complete song, the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” ; Ghostface raps over the verses, and joins in on the chorus, with “la la means I love you” etc changed to “holla holla holla if you want to, I love you.”
Ghostface has done soulful songs, backed by soul samples, in the past, of course: think of “All That I Got Is You” (on Ironman) or “Never Be The Same Again” (on Bulletproof Wallets). But on Pretty Toney he moves it to a whole new level.
Let me explain. Using an old song for emotional impact is an old trick in hip hop (and in other genres of music as well, of course). The most egregious example I can think of is Puff Daddy’s eulogy for Biggie, “I’ll Be Missing You,” which basically just added a few new lyrics to Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.” The emotion seems unearned, gotten through a knee-jerk reaction to the original song, and therefore phony. I’m always saying that sampling is creativity: that imagination works by taking a prior work, and reworking and recontextualizing it, and hybridizing it with other prior works. But “I’ll Be Missing You” is the lame degree zero of that.
But on The Pretty Toney Album, a very different dynamic is at work. Ghostface isn’t just using soul music to get an emotional reaction. Rather, he is working with the fact that soul music signifies or connotes emotionality. It stands for passion: for longing, desperation, and blocked desire, on the one hand, and warmth, fulfillment, drawn-out erotic bliss on the other. In this way it stands at an opposite pole from the ethos of the Shaolin warrior (the big theme in Wu Tang mythology), or from the pimp/thug/gangsta/Iceberg Slim/Donald Goines lineage of so much rap in the last decade or so. Soul is about emotional outpouring, while hardcore rap is about maintaining a reserve of cool, never letting yourself go (withholding is the best way to manipulate others, while letting go imperils your survival).
These can be seen as the two sides of black music, and can further be seen (stereotypically) as “feminine” and “masculine” modes. Soul includes men singing to women as well as women singing for women; hardcore rap is addressed by men to other men, and is filled with masculine bravado. Of course, these are both extreme reductions — what’s really going on in black music is far more multifarious — but they express the dichotomy that Ghostface is working with.
So, Ghostface doesn’t just use his soul music samples for cheap emotional impact: he plays off his vocals against the music. His voice adapts itself to the rhythm and flow of the samples, while at the same time his tone — sometimes desperate, more often dry and deadpan, at times comedically mock-hysterical — cuts against it. The result is complex and conflicted. Sometimes the disjunction is played out narratively, as the song tells a story that moves from anger, nihilism, or boasting to acceptance and opening up. This is the case in “Holla”, for instance: Ghostface’s lines seem initially to totally contradict the Delfonics’ lovey-dovey mood, but by the end he has moved on from “pimp talk” to almost-preaching about education and keeping the peace. Other times, tension is maintained throughout the song. “It’s Over” expresses regret for the thug life he’s left behind, at the same time that it reminds us that “what goes around comes around”: soul nostalgia and hard-edged aggression interpenetrate and almost seem to change places.
My favorite song on the album is “Tooken Back”, a duet with the raunchy Jacki-O. It’s a battle of the sexes that turns into the hope of reconciliation. In the first verse, Ghostface is telling his woman that he was right to dump her, and that even though she’s taken him onto Jerry Springer to beg for forgiveness she won’t get it. The second verse is Jacki-O’s rejoinder, cajoling and pleading with him, but also subtly keeping her distance from desperation (“your sex wasn’t wild… but I dealt with it”). The third verse flips the situation, with Ghostface begging the woman to come back. Throughout, a soul sample pleading “take me back” — from a song of that name by The Emotions — loops in the background, and swells up to the foreground during the chorus. The intonations of both rappers pass through a number of affective states, from derision to desperation to love. The soul sample makes the emotion over the top and larger than life, while the voices’ nuances introduce subtlety and qualification, and eventually a kind of warmth. Both speakers are calculating in everything they say, yet the soul sample drags them into a warmth, and an erotic pull, that are beyond calculation. The sample loops and loops with the stirrings of desire, while the raps rationalize and then give way, giving a narrative shape to that underlying pulse. The song manages to be heartfelt rather than ironic, even as it shows a fully ironic, self-conscious awareness of what’s going on.

2 Responses to “Ghostface, The Pretty Toney Album”

  1. After the Mix Tape I Guess Comes The Tears: Mixtapes, Major Labels and the Song Flow

    Steven Shaviro has a great take on Ghostface’s The Pretty Toney Album. I do have something of a disagreement, almost…

  2. k-punk says:

    HIP HOP AND THE BLACK ECONOMY

    Fascinating piece by Abe (prompted by a great post bySteven Shaviro about Ghostface’s new album) on hip hop mixtapes (actually a misnomer, since, as Abe points out, many of the ‘tapes’ are issued on CD and some involve no mixing…