The strangest moment on Ghostface Killah’s new record, The Big Doe Rehab, occurs at the end of “Paisley Darts,” a long cut featuring the fist-clenched rhymes, retro samples and marquee guests (Raekwon, Method Man) that have been the hallmarks of Dennis Coles' 11-year solo career.
As the furious studio track fades, the buzz of a concert crowd emerges, and then Ghostface’s voice rises up over everything. The veteran MC delivers a hip-hop state of the union address, warning about rappers who get “caught up in radio,” trying to sell cheap rhymes for quick bucks.
“His bark might be big, but his bite ain’t shit,” Ghostface screams about no rapper in particular, or maybe it's about most of them. It’s a philosophy as good as any with which to analyze the music of one of the most complete MCs in the history of the game. In another decade, Ghostface could have made his living scoring blaxploitation films. But in the 21st century, Tony Starks has become the street rapper capable of creating substantive albums in a single-obsessed era.
Ironically, the album’s most tenuous moments happen during “We Celebrate,” which samples Rare Earth's instantly recognizable “I Just Want to Celebrate.” The easy hook affords Ghostface a certain laziness: “(I just want to celebrate) Like my baby’s first steps, you heard? …(I just want to celebrate) Like my first time platinum, yo.” What could have been (and carries itself as) a verifiable celebration of hip-hop turns instead into a catchy pop throwaway. Luckily, “We Celebrate” is followed up with the instant classic “Walk Around.” Like most of Ghostface's best material, “Walk Around” bridges vintage '70s sounds (“Packed Up and Took My Mind” by Little Milton, in this case) with Ghost’s brutal but honest narratives.
"Walk Around" is one of a few cuts on Rehab that come close to achieving the type of grandeur omnipresent in 2006's Fishscale. While Rehab doesn't represent the top of Ghostface's game, the MC's approach is as viable as ever. And if the album doesn't pack the kind of radio-ready hits provided by this year's other big-time rappers like Kanye West and Jay-Z, it's only because this is one artist with other priorities.