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Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah begins his new album, Bulletproof Wallets, lamenting the decline in the fortunes of the Wu: “Niggas done made classics/Niggas ain’t even playin’ our shit…./It’s like niggas don’t understand/We started all that Cristal/All that Wallabee shit.” Ghost’s co-star on the album, Raekwon, assures the featured performer that “the best niggas always go through this.” Raekwon is correct: Virtuosos often go unnoticed in their time. But plenty of hacks worthy of anonymity also get ignored. And in that latter school of artists—the justifiably overlooked—Ghostface Killah, no matter what his cohorts say, is swiftly advancing to the head of the class.

Of course, there was no way to predict that Ghostface would one day degenerate into a study in irrelevant verbalizing. At the height of his talents, circa 1995, he was an amazingly lucid MC. Unlike current chart-toppers Ja Rule and Busta Rhymes, Ghostface possessed an impassioned delivery that was matched by a knack for precise lyricism. His cameo role on Raekwon’s classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… revealed Ghostface to be one of Wu-Tang’s most formidable talents. On the remix of “Can It Be All So Simple,” he concisely chronicled the downfall of a once-successful crack slinger: “I dose off, catch a flashback on how I got trapped, and got licked/Like Papsy in a mob flick, I got hit/Stumbling, holding my neck to the God’s rest/Opened flesh, burgundy blood colored my Guess/Emergency trauma black teen headed for surgery/Can it be an out-of-state nigga tried to murder me?”

Like all great seers of boulevard culture, Ghostface was able to communicate the street ethos without melodrama. His address to a young lady on the song “Ice Cream” is typical of the sort of articulate, if not exactly PC, voice Ghostface was able to craft: “Caramel complexion, breath smelling like cinnamon/

Excuse me, hon, the Don mean no harm, turn around again…./I’m high-powered, put Adina Howard to sleep/Yo, pardon, that bitch been on my mind all week.” The beauty of Ghostface was that his delivery was harsh—at times even grating—but his versifying was as smooth as silk. Listening to Ghostface at his height was like watching an NFL linebacker pirouetting toward a quarterback.

Of course, this was all during Ghostface’s golden years. Beginning with Wu-Tang’s second album, 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever, Ghostface accompanied Raekwon in an aesthetic shift toward what some call surrealism. But “babble,” “incoherence,” and “nonsense” somehow seem more appropriate in describing Ghostface’s recent output. Ghostface’s performance on Forever was little more than a loose collection of non sequiturs matched to a beat. Ghostface’s verse on “Hellz Wind Staff” left listeners trying to make sense of lines such as “Spraying cards espionage/Dodgeball square hard/Strip bars, no bras, wet leotards.” Regrettably, the turn continued on Ghostface’s second album, 2000’s Supreme Clientele, another collection of slang babble: “Son triflin’ fuck, wildflower on the cyclin’/Pick up the brew thought I was Michael.”

There are those who will tell you that there’s a science behind Ghostface’s decline, that it’s not really a decline at all, but a bold ascent into imagery that average listeners simply fail to comprehend. I have another theory: Lyrics don’t sell records, and Ghostface knows it. He correctly observed that incoherent lyrics never stopped anyone from going platinum and gave up all attempts to put any effort into lyric writing. Of course, this theory doesn’t take artistic respect into account; despite The Source’s recent genuflection, Ghostface has seen his stock drop precipitously. This partially explains his opening rant on Wallets. But it also explains why the album is more lucid then much of Ghostface’s recent work. On Wallets, you can actually follow the narratives of Ghostface and his host of guests—which is good and bad. It’s good because you can actually understand what Ghostface is saying. It’s bad because you can actually understand what Ghostface is saying.

Wallets, an amazingly immature album lyrically—and a bit of a shocker coming from someone who is not exactly a spring chicken in the rap game—features Ghostface pontificating on such worldly topics as games of craps and oral sex. Typical of his mind-set is “Never Be the Same Again,” a quasi-ballad in which Ghostface attempts to mourn the loss of his woman. The syrupy strings and vapid crooning from guest artist Carl Thomas don’t really help the cut much. But neither does its principal, who can articulate his pain only in explicitly sexual images: “Ask you one question, ‘Was it good?/He have you on the wall like me, was it hood?’/You probably showed him your sexy faces, how you ride on top/Grabbing the sheets, in a deep zone if he hit the spot.”

Equally graphic is the cut “Strawberry,” which, after a decent cameo appearance by Killah Sin, features Ghostface recounting the details of a blowjob. He ends his bout of audio porn by remarking, “Solomon was wise and I got 50 other bitches/Some eat bitches, some bitches fuck my niggas.” The relatively romantic “Love Session” finds Ghostface again at crotch level, cataloging all the reasons he loves his sweetheart: “Like when we uhhh, yo, I get these crazy chills from you…./The only girl that can make my shit jump with the slightest touch/You at the stove while I’m grabbin’ my stuff/God forbid somethin’ happen to us/Let’s remain friends and discuss our troubles and might try again.” The RZA-produced “Jealousy,” though mercifully brief, is another lyrical dud, notable mainly because it shows some of Ghostface’s more pertinent concerns—such as envious people who buy the same shoes he does.

What’s most disturbing about Ghostface’s pathetic performance is that Wallets features the best production on a Wu-Tang-related album in years. “Ghost Showers” juxtaposes a nice drum track with a disco-era break. “The Forest” is accented by soaring horns and keyboard riffs. And “Walking Through the Darkness” samples Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” and uses Takitha’s haunting wail to forge an outstanding track. But even when presented with these impressive canvases, Ghostface paints mostly below the belt, making Wallets just as forgettable as any recent offering by a member of the once-powerful Wu-Tang Clan. No wonder no one’s playin’ their shit. CP