It doesn't matter what the question is. If you're looking for an answer, don't ask Dennis Coles. This is what 15 years of press clippings have taught us about the MC who, as Ghostface Killah, has made some of his generation's most fascinating and lyrically rich hip-hop records. At his giddiest, he is guarded; any other time, he's impenetrable. With every response, Ghostface flashes one of his two moods — aloofness and righteousness — diverting our attention from the source of his beguiling rhymes.
How does Ghostface achieve his world-class haught? Non sequiturs, usually. Like the time an AskMen.com interviewer prodded Ghostface to reveal "something nobody knows about" him. He responded with one of his default rants. Readers familiar with Ghostspeak know it as his "feeding babies" spiel: "I'm going to be that dude at the end of the day telling people this is by the grace of God," he offered. "For 15 cents a day, you can feed this child right here. 10 cents a day, man. All it takes is 10 cents to go ahead and feed these babies."
This leads us conveniently to Ghostface's other rhetorical trope: righteousness. In recent years, he has honed a sermon of sorts, a riff against his reckless youth. The hours he used to spend "beating a lot of rappers up and punching them in [their] faces" (as he told Pop Matters' Lee Henderson in 2006) has, in early middle age, been allocated to thinking and talking about God. Yet something else has changed — maybe for the better. By celebrating his creator, it appears Ghostface has finally found a platform for telegraphing insights into his own creative process, albeit obliquely.
If only as a parlor game, you can't help but tease a sort-of Shaolin poetics out of Ghostface's sermon. It begins with the simple question: Why? "There's a creator who's inside everything," he told Henderson. "I never forget those little things. You can cross the street and not get hit by a bus or a car, but you ain't the one who did it. It's like, yo: It was angels who was protecting you. You made it across the street, or had a safe flight or whatever. What I'm trying to say, it's not you. Whatever you do, you live his talent."
This might be a common belief, but Ghostface is an uncommon man. For starters, he's intensely observant. In the rap game, his strength of recall is Proustian. His skill in breaking a verse's picture into jagged crystals is Joycean. Many of his lyrics consist of little more than artfully edited lists of concrete details. Each new image nudges the listener toward an emotional epiphany, as in the nostalgic "Child's Play," from 2000's Supreme Clientele: "Lines from Dolomite/Few tips from Goines/Birthday, gave her two 50-cent coins." Here and elsewhere, Ghostface flexes his grasp of the power of brief and elliptical speech. "You gotta submit to the will of God," he told Henderson. "He's the creator. He gave you life. With his power, he said, 'Let it be,' and it was. In very few words." It appears God has a grip on Ghostface's style.
From his biggest hit, 1996's "All That I Got Is You" (with Mary J. Blige), to the coke-rap opuses of the mid-2000's (Fish-scale and More Fish, both 2006), Ghostface has long been considered one of rap's best storytellers. To suppose his gift for narrative was nurtured by his belief in Christian mythologies might be conjecture. But it's an assumption rooted in reels and reels of the rapper's chatter about the hereafter. "I'm at a stage now where I know that somebody's watching me," Ghostface told Andres Vasquez of Hiphopdx.com last year. "Whether it's the angels, my good angel and my bad angel, taking notes or God himself, somebody is watching me and I'ma be held accountable for this shit after I pass away." In other words, whether you call him Dennis or Ghostface, it doesn't matter. This a man who's acutely aware of his story.
Ghostface's tale began on Staten Island in 1985. Here, at 15, he wrote his first rhymes. As was common in hip-hop's first two generations, his musical tastes were steeped in '50s R&B and '60s soul — in this case, his mother's record collection. He especially loved the pop-tinged melodies in the songs of Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield. Though his own work would boast some of the strongest beats in hip-hop, his sensitivity to melody — particularly a hook's tendency to subvert the beat — is the key to his striking flow.
After writing his first songs, another eight years passed before Ghostface debuted on wax as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan. But when it arrived, 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was recognized as a hinge moment in rap's history. Enter the Wu ignited a brief explosion of lyrical themes and theatricality in a genre dominated by monochrome gangsters. It did for hip-hop what Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band did for rock. The mythology constructed throughout the album's lyrics and artwork is biblical in its complexity. Ghostface's solo debut, 1996's Ironman, stalled his momentum, only hinting at the brilliance he'd consistently flash in the 2000s at a near-annual clip, beginning with his first masterpiece, Supreme Clientele.
In December, Ghostface releases a new album. On The Apollo Kids, we're about to find out what his long talks with God have done for his art. Is Ghostface building a cathedral, or merely painting on velvet?