Happy 15th Anniversary to Ghostface Killah’s fourth studio album The Pretty Toney Album, originally released April 20, 2004.
Dennis “Ghostface Killah” Coles starts off The Pretty Toney Album with a mock press conference. It was his fourth full-length album, his first in over two-and-a-half years, and his first with Def Jam Records. What follows for the next two-and-a-half minutes are peak levels of Ghostface, as he exudes an effortless cool and a confrontational defiance.
One “reporter” questions how he is going to represent the people in the streets? “Imma do it how I been doing it,” Ghost claps back. “Ain’t nothing but a different label, pa. You need to stay in school.”
The questions continue: What about the fake gangstas out there? “Them n****s is pussy,” he scoffs. “They know my style. They can’t fuck with me.”
Why don’t you roll with big bodyguards like other rappers? “GOD IS MY BODYGUARD, N***A!” he bellows.
What about that new insurance company with the duck? AFLAC? “I hear ya, bro,” he chuckles. “Stop eating that pork.”
As definitive opening statements go, few in hip-hop can compare. It’s brash and ballsy, and allows hip-hop’s Iron Man to revel in his own swagger.
Ghostface had previously released three albums through Epic Records. His debut Ironman (1996) is among the best of Wu-Tang’s first wave of releases. Supreme Clientele (2000) was the best album of the ’00s. Bulletproof Wallets, while hampered by sample clearance issues and a bungled track-list, was still a quality release. But with the release of Bulletproof Wallets, it was becoming clear the Epic didn’t know what to do with Ghostface. Def Jam, still considered the definitive hip-hop label, seemed like an ideal home for him.
But while The Pretty Toney Album is an excellent project, it often seems like it has multiple personalities. There’s the sense that different people wanted the project to be different things, or at least target certain audiences. More than ever during the mid ’00s, record labels were looking for that one song that they could push for radio in order to move units, often without regard as to how that one song would fit on the album. Pretty Toney is at its best when Ghostface is allowed to play to his strengths. And unsurprisingly, you can hear the strain where Def Jam was trying to push him towards a more commercially friendly sound.
When Pretty Toney keeps it raw, it reinforces that there are few artists that can compete with Ghostface’s vivid imagery and gutter sensibilities. When Ghost is in the pocket, even his ad-libs are better than most rapper’s verses. Ghostface begins “Biscuits” snarling at an unseen and unheard “smart dumb n***a” for having the audacity to bring him a chocolate Nutriment instead of the banana-flavored variety. Ghost seems comfortable and in his element atop the horn-driven, True Master-produced track, as he robs unsuspecting wack emcees, proclaiming, “Safety off and shit, crept up, ‘What up money? Freeze!’ / Don’t move, turn around, act like James Brown / And get down! Get slapped with the put down / Wasn't you the same clown uptown, yapping?”
The RZA-produced “Kunta Fly Shit” is drenched in traditional Wu-Tang grime, as Ghostface scopes out an out-of-town drug dealer infringing on his territory, and proceeds to rob him. The track is barely a minute long, evoking images of a darker Wu-Gambino era excursion for Tony Starks, and still feels leisurely in its execution.
Ghostface quickens the pace on “Beat the Clock,” where under the radar producer Minnesota puts together a track bolstered by soaring strings, sounding like the opening credits of a Blaxploitation flick. For reasons I still don’t understand, Ghostface imposes a two minute and 37 second deadline to deliver a flawless performance. He succeeds, because of course he does, boasting, “We left the jewelry store feeling like we left the morgue / We was frozen, and I bought an iced-out Trojan.” Ghostface professing to “feed dolphins” remains one of his most bafflingly random and awesome lines.
Something about working with members of The Lox on Pretty Toney put the proverbial battery in Ghostface’s back. Two of the album’s best entries are collaborations with the Yonkers-based crew, operating under the name D-Block at the time. “Metal Lungies” is a personal favorite, as Sheek Looch and Styles P (a.k.a. Ghost) join Ghostface to create a straight-from-the-gutter rap anthem. No I.D., then in the midst of producing for artists like G-Unit, DMX, and Method Man, puts together soaring horns to give the track a towering and grandiose feel.
It’s premium Timberlands and fatigues hip-hop, with all three emcees in a zone, spitting harder than steel bars. Sheek delivers the verse of his career on the No I.D.-produced track, rapping, “I got a revolver and a pump about the size of Chucky / I remember faces easy as I tie my laces / And put the metal in your mouth like you was rocking braces / I spit an iron lungie, I’m old school like the Iron Monkey / My shit is powerful enough to lift a fucking donkey.”
Ghost partners with Jadakiss on “Run,” the album’s first single, with both emcees fleeing on foot from police, trying to escape a drug arrest. Ghost describes furiously scrambling through the projects, barreling down “pissy stairwells” in the hopes of avoiding football numbers in prison. Meanwhile, Jada dips and dodges the NARCs on “taskforce Tuesday,” struggling with his asthma and his ability to keep his pants up. The chaotic, grimy, RZA produced track sounds like it was lifted from a ’70s crime drama, complete with wailing keys and sirens.
Ghostface is among the best at creating gripping first-person narratives. These stories not only explore his own self-image, but also contain his own view of his environment. On “Be This Way,” Ghostface provides a detailed bird’s eye view of the Staten Island neighborhood that raised him. Ghostface paints a bleak picture of the slums of Shaolin on the Nottz-produced track, describing a place where “the cops are pussy” and shooters take “no Trix” from silly rabbits, feeding them “lead carrots.”
Pretty Toney is also notable for its multiple forays into Ghostface rhyming over complete soul songs. As in, he doesn’t bother sampling or looping a section of a song, instead rapping over the original source in its entirety, vocals and all. Ghostface’s first attempt at this approach occurred while recording Supreme Clientele; the unreleased “In the Rain” is him laying down lyrics over The Dramatics song of the same name.
On Pretty Toney he toys with the concept a few times. With “Save Me Dear,” he rhymes over much of Freddie Scott’s “(You) Got What I Need,” only removing the chorus, presumably because of its association with Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” Ghostface commits to the whole bit with “Holla,” moving across the Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You)” with relative ease, varying his flow and vocals to match the highs and lows of the original song. He gets emotional at times, channeling the pain of the original track as he raps, “Both hands clusty, bank account dusty! / Ever say my name again, you pussy! / Like an angry cripple man, don’t push me! / Don’t believe the kid? Listen to me!”
The Pretty Toney Album is most frequently associated with “Tush,” Ghostface’s duet with Missy Elliott. Which is a shame, because the song is in the bottom rung of Grandpa Ghost’s discography. Ghostface has always had a comfortable relationship with R&B-influenced hip-hop, and is better than most at creating it, as “Never Be the Same Again” from Bulletproof Wallets demonstrates, but “Tush” feels like pandering. It was the album’s second single, and is cringe-inducing. Lyrically, the song is on brand for both Ghostface and Missy, a sexually aggressive and explicit track where each welcomes the other’s advances. However, the two lack any real chemistry on the mic together and the horn-heavy track falls flat.
“It’s Over” is another of the album’s weaker moments, but, again, not because of Ghost. He delivers two of his trademark cinematic verses, but sadly, his effort is dampened by the beat which is a synthetic replaying of the piano breakdown from David Porter’s “I’m Afraid the Masquerade Is Over.” K-Def, who hooked up the track, is capable of so much better.
The song “Ghostface” is much more successful at striking a balance at being catchy but still having that genuine Ghostface spark. Daryl “Digga” Branch, co-founder of The Diplomats/Dipset and forgotten late ’90s through the ’00s producer, crafts a track composed of staccato whistles and chirps, along with chopped keyboard notes and pounding drums. Ghostface adds the necessary flourishes with his lyrics, claiming to “soak my hands in olive oil” and likens himself to a “green and white kick-ball.” Because he bounces.
The album closes with “Love,” a sincere dedication to the people and places that Ghostface values most. It’s understated and heartfelt, strengthened by No I.D.’s production, as he utilizes a slightly sped-up loop of David Ruffin’s “Statue of a Fool.” It also demonstrates that, when executed correctly, Ghostface can leave his usual comfort zone and play with R&B singers. Vocals by neo-soul champion Musiq Soulchild are a welcome addition, imbuing the track with an undeniable soul.
It’s questionable whether or not Def Jam ever really figured out how to properly market Ghostface, but he stayed with the label for at least another six years, dropping five more albums after Pretty Toney. To its credit, Def Jam stopped trying to make Ghostface an artist that he wasn’t. As a result, his subsequent attempts at gaining broader appear felt more organic, like Ghostdini: Wizard Of Poetry In Emerald City (2009), his full collaboration with a slew of R&B artists. But aside from the few failed attempts to fit Ghostface into a square hole, The Pretty Toney Album generally works and features some of the most authentically Ghostface moments ever recorded.