You can hear the moment when Ghostface Killah, née Dennis Coles, turned into a superhero. A horn loop, sampled from 1970’s soul group Black Ivory’s “I Keep Asking You Questions” and trapped in the basement via RZA’s signature Wu-Tang style, blasts over a snippet from Gangsta Rap ur-text Scarface (“I told you a long time ago…not to fuck with me“). Then the horn drops out, leaving the drums and an ominous ringing noise that slices through the empty space, and Raekwon mutters “taking you on another one” before his partner in crime Ghostface comes through on some superhero shit:
Yo, first of all son, peep the arson /
Many brothers I be sparking and busting mad light inside the dark /
Call me dough snatcher, just the brother for the rapture /
I hang glide, holding on strong, hard to capture /
Extravagant, RZA bake the track and it’s militant /
Then I react, like a convict, and start killing shit
Oh my goodness – criminology raps indeed. He goes on to throw people off airplanes, trap them inside his chamber and leave them smoked at the doorway. If you don’t know what it means to be sent back to the essence, he gladly explains that you’ll be covered in dirt while you’re resting. The energy emanates from every bar, each line crashing into the next, the fluidity seizing all the air in the room. He’s hungry – leveling up on the urgency he displayed when he opened Wu-Tang’s debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It was his best verse to date.
“Criminology” (video above) is the fourth track on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, an unequivocal masterpiece of a record that stands as a peak in Wu-Tang’s fertile five year run in the 1990’s – maybe the greatest musical period in American history. Raekwon’s solo debut crystalized the burgeoning gangsta rap trends that were coursing through New York City into a mafioso style, buttressed by gangster flick references and vivid noir writing, that has entwined with the rap’s DNA and can be still be noticed today. The tape aims for its cinematic influences – complete with Ghostface getting a “Guest starring” credit as Tony Starks on the album cover – and for the most part surpasses them. The sense of place, the crime raps, the tempo and flow of the emotional narrative, are so sophisticated that mythical recluse Jay Electronica compared them to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Adopting the Tony Starks moniker for the first time on OB4CL, Ghostface used the tape as a stepping stone to rise from his status as a second-tier member of Wu-Tang to one of the most urgent voices in the New York scene. “Criminology” isn’t the best song on the album; it’s not even the best Ghostface moment! That could be “Verbal Intercourse” where he takes the hammer spot on a posse cut with an iconic Nas verse. Or it could be “Ice Cream,” where he has the lead verse on the only song on the album that was remotely close to a radio hit. My personal favorite moment of his is “Wisdom Body,” his only solo showcase that’s just him talking some game. He bursts into the room like DeNiro in Mean Streets (“Heads clocked once I came in the door”) sees a young lady and proceeds to talk his shit, showcasing not just his eye for detail but an empathy and intimacy that’s missing in today’s slew of emotional rappers dealings with women (“Yo, what’s your name hun? Hair wrapped in a bun, your eyes sparkle just like glass in the sun”). It’s a premonition of his career to come – where his vivid clarity transcended the crime sagas detailed on OB4CL.
“Criminology” isn’t the finest example of Ghostface’s performance on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx but it is the first verse he has on the album that stopped me in my tracks. It’s thrilling when you someone grows into their potential right before your eyes (or in this case, ears). It’s like when Stephen Curry went supernova for the first time in the 2013 NBA Playoffs and ousted the higher seeded Denver Nuggets. Or, in a more grand gesture worthy of Mr. Starks, when LeBron James took over in the 2007 NBA Eastern Conference Finals in a performance that Steve Kerr called “Jordanesque.” Ghostface Killah’s transformation into Tony Starks cemented his place as an all time great. His debut solo album the next year, Ironman – thus named for his Tony Starks nom de plume – secured his superhero status. Once the Wu-Tang Clan’s prime finished in the 90’s, Ghost leveled himself up once again. His solo stretch in the 2000’s was a marvel – matching Jay-Z’s output album for album for the GOAT status (if not commercially, then artistically). You could hear it all here first, when Starks first attacked the RZA baked track and started acting like a convict and killed shit.