Ghostface has style and substance

Boston Globe, April 15, 2006

Not long after Ghostface Killah hit the stage Thursday night at the Paradise, someone in front reached up to hand the rapper a box. It contained a pair of sky-blue Wallabies, his fetish throwback footwear, and he beamed as he tried them on, the color enriching an already fruity outfit that included a robe, a tartan cap, and bombastic old-school gold jewelry.

Ghost, you see, brings to the table more than his ridiculously inventive, densely packed rhymes, with their strangely successful non sequiturs and effortless jumps between the sacred and the profane. He also brings a persona, idiosyncrasies, and a comfort with the outrageous that put him in the lineage of the greatest MCs. This fusion of substance and style saturates his new album, “Fishscale,” and makes him a superior live performer.

It showed in his swagger and looseness, and when he quieted the beats and his hype men and sat at center stage, engaging the packed, adulatory crowd in a back-and-forth a cappella medley of hits from the Wu-Tang Clan and his solo career. And it showed at the end of his generous 90-minute set when he filled the stage with women from the crowd and, to the tune of classic soul jams, let the night end as a dance party.

The contrast was stark with his tour mate M1, one-half of the duo dead prez, who just released his own solo effort, “Confidential.” M1 flaunts ersatz Black Panther themes that are long on revolutionary outcries and short on practicalities. (Never mind the problem of distilling black nationalism before a mainly white audience while referring to everyone by the N-word.) As lustily as the room took up the chants against George Bush, the biggest cheers came in response to the question, “Where all my weed smokers at?”

M1 and the earlier opening act A-Alikes, who worked in a similar vein, might have had more success enlisting “soldiers” in their “people’s army” had they taken a page from Ghostface’s book (or, for that matter, Public Enemy’s) and offered a total experience, not just a bunch of staccato slogans from rappers with solid rhyme skills but middling charisma. Until so-called political rappers elevate their game as performers, the battle between revolution and booty-shaking won’t be a fair fight.