The Wu-Tang Clan's luster has dimmed since the group exploded onto the hip-hop scene with a radical new style, sound, and ethos in the early '90s. RZA stopped being an A-list producer years ago, Ol' Dirty Bastard has spent much of the past few years in and out of jail, and deodorant pitchman Method Man releases solo albums at a Peter Gabriel-like clip. Of Wu-Tang's breakout stars, only Ghostface Killah (now simply "Ghostface") consistently inspires the kind of anticipation and excitement that surrounded the group's golden age.
Ghostface signed to rap powerhouse Def Jam following the release of Bulletproof Wallets, and though it was his least successful album, the deal seemed like a smart move for both parties. Ghostface can benefit from the marketing savvy and deep pockets of rap's most powerful label, while Def Jam has acquired a charismatic marquee name who will always be a star, no matter how his last album sold.
Rap superstars coming off a commercial disappointment usually hedge their bets by shelling out big bucks for a slew of superstar guest artists and producers. But Ghostface didn't become one of rap's most compelling figures by blindly following the pack, and on The Pretty Toney Album, he largely avoids name producers while limiting his guests to Missy Elliott, Musiq, and The Lox.
Though Elliott's club-friendly contribution ("Push") doesn't play to Ghostface's strengths, The Lox fares far better on "Metal Lungies" and "Run," which both create the hip-hop equivalent of a French Connection-style chase scene produced by a reinvigorated RZA. He only produces two tracks here, however; Pretty Toney's gorgeous production from largely unheralded beatsmiths proves that it doesn't take Kanye West and Just Blaze to make an album as drenched in soul as The Blueprint.
Delving deep into Motown, Stax, and Philly soul, Pretty Toney recaptures the hunger, emotion, hood gothicism, and gritty storytelling of Wu-Tang Clan's infancy. From "Love," where Ghostface takes it back to church and gets all warm and fuzzy, to the self-produced love song "Save Me Dear," the album showcases him in top form. Though his rhyming Wu-Tang compatriots are conspicuously absent, Ghostface's latest does what nearly all latter-day Wu-Tang releases have been trying to do without much success: return to the brilliance of 36 Chambers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Ghostface, it seems, can go home again.