Walking through the darkness

Ghostface saves the day for weary Wu-Tang fans.

Tom Horgen

When the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” hit the streets in 1993, most rap heads put the Ghostface Killah near the back of the monster nine-emcee lineup.

But now, with the RZA a ghost of his former self, Method Man doing Right Guard commercials and the rest of Clan wading in mediocrity, Ghostface is it. The sole survivor of a crumbling dynasty.

His first two solo albums, “Ironman” and “Supreme Clientele,” are hip-hop classics. He stumbled on his third joint in 2001, though, leaving some fans fearful that the Wu’s only hope would fade like the rest. But that didn’t stop fans from clamoring for more.

And “The Pretty Toney Album” is a glorious return. When you hear it, imagine Ghostface in the booth, spitting rhymes to a burning mic, flames everywhere. It’s that sweaty. And in hindsight, when we look back to the Wu’s debut album, Ghostface does stand out. He had the privilege of dropping the first line on the album’s opening track, introducing himself with authority: “Ghostface, catch the blast of a hype verseÖ” More than a decade later, nothing’s changed.

Of course when you listen to “The Pretty Toney Album,” the first thing that’ll strike you is what you don’t listen to Ghostface for. Which would be his penchant for sexist and misogynist lyrics – albeit very witty sexist and misogynist lyrics. Take “Save Me Dear,” where he asks all the ladies to, “Make some noise if you cook and you clean.” A little old-fashioned? No, just stupid.

On the other hand, every other aspect of the album is a startling reminder of why rap heads praise Ghostface and also why he’s the only Wu member still breathing fire. The beats. The nonsense rhymes. The pain in his voice. All here.

Nearly every track burns with mighty soul samples, from the sweet hum of 1970s songbirds to blazing horns on par with the Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes. The best collage of soul, though, is “Holla,” where the rapper steps behind the boards and serves up a Delfonics sample that he actually sings along to. Ghostface: the William Hung of rap. And it’s all good.

As for the rhymes, it’s trendy to harp on Ghostface’s nonsensical rants. And yes, he still trails off a bit. But this album actually finds him as focused as ever. His life lessons (“It’s Over” and “Be This Way”) about growing up black and poor are poignant masterpieces. And “Run” is an epic street narrative told in only three minutes. It’s essentially about trying not to be the next Amadou Diallo.

“The Pretty Toney Album” isn’t “Ironman” or “Supreme Clientele.” But it could have been. Apparently Def Jam didn’t want to pony up the dough to clear the samples on the unreleased gems, “Gorilla Hood” and “Ghost Heard it Before.” Drop the skits and add those songs (which you can get at www.wutangcorp.com) and boom: another classic. But for what it is, Ghostface is sitting just fine. Now if he could only pull his Wu-brethren out of the gutter.