While indisposed, I've been listening quite a bit to Ghostface Killah's
new album Supreme Clientele.
A lot of different places have been tentatively hailing it as the hip hop album of the year so far, and while I haven't really heard any better as of yet (Jay-Z probably matches), I really don't feel comfortable with the idea.
Ghostface Killah, aka Dennis Coles, aka IronMan, aka Tony Starkes, aka The Wally Champ, is, as you of course all know, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan collective. But if by some chance you didn't, this RZA-guided (but largely disciple-helmed) outing is quick to remind you. Every track bears the unmistakeable Wu-trademark: about three different samples (say, an edgy piano run, some plangent guitar and dramatic strings) combine to make an unresolved, dovetailing loop, which is then repeated ad infinitum throughout the track. The drum loop is simple, relaxed and moderately funky, but not really the point. It's there to establish a loping sense of flow, and to focus attention on the sonic barrage on top. Of course you'd expect this to get a bit boring after a while, and on the Clan's limpid double-album Forever it certainly does, but basically it all depends on the inventiveness of the producers involved, which pretty much varies from track to track.
It's the usual inconsistancy of the Wu approach which makes Supreme Clientele stand out: nearly every track is on-form (although the overlong skits do annoy) and the best tracks ("One", "Ghost Deini", "Apollo Kids", "Buck 50", "Wu Banga 101") are very, very good indeed. As on his debut Ironman, Ghostface brilliantly combines the RZA formula with a reliance on funk and soul samples, which would be cloying if this wasn't defiantly a hardcore record. Instead, it gives the whole album a sort of divine purpose, implicating Ghostface within the long history of righteous black protest (made explicit on "Malcolm"). There's a polemic running through the songs of chronicling the black man's dystopian pain, such as on the makeshift gospel-blues of the interludes, Ghostface singing weakly: "Wu-Tang Clan and Ironman, lead us to the promised land, help us build upon this land, 'till we free all black man". However I can't tell if it's in deadly earnest or if it's all a big joke.
Whatever, the songs still go down a treat. "One" turns beautifully on a soul trio's delicate coo, a preponderous piano rumble and a surprised-sounding diva proclaiming the title, which becomes the basis for an inspired call and response towards the end. The real standout though is first single "Apollo Kids", a hard-driving duel between a buzz-bass riff and swirling, melodramatic disco strings. Of all the tracks, only "Mighty Healthy" resembles the kind of paranoid trembling-piano-and-detuned-guitar freakscapes that the Clan are famous for, and is better than most of those anyway, with the best kind of film dialogue sample: one that is completely boring in its original context, but utterly chilling in its new setting.
I realise I've skipped two important topics: Ghostface's rapping, and the infamous new single "Cherchez LaGhost". Both I haven't really absorbed enough yet to comment meaningfully on, though perhaps the latter will get a single review? So far I've only really pitched up snatches of meaning from the lyrical flow, partly because of Ghostface's rapid-fire, energetic delivery, which is all part of the fun anyway.
But back to the issue at hand: why do I hesitate in proclaiming this to be the best hip hop album of the year so far? Mainly because, despite all its charms, it's still so backwards looking. For all the quality of the songs, the Wu-Tang status quo is hardly challenged by this set. From the unaffecting beats to the pure extention of Ironman's innovations, there's nothing to suggest that this album couldn't have been made five years ago, and since I love hip hop primarily for its futurism, that seems weird to me. It's three years since RZA ceased to be the most inventive producer on the block, and I would expect that, if not him, then at least one of his disciples would try and play catch up with Timbaland, Mannie Fresh et al. Some would say the Staten Island school is bucking trends and remaining pure to their vision, but surely Dr. Dre has proved that one can expand on one's style using the tricks of today, while retaining and improving on the core idea of that style? Maybe it's silly to expect so much, but for me at least it renders listening to Supreme Clientele a curiously ambivalent, if very pleasurable experience.