04 June 2024

"No Face" by Ghostface Killah ft. Kanye West (2024)

THE COMPLEXITIES OF YE

Kanye West, aka "Ye", is one of the most intriguing rappers to study.  Unlike most others, he's established himself as an A-list celebrity well outside the realm of music.  In other words, Yeezy has the tendency to make mainstream headlines even when he isn't dropping songs.  And unlike when most rappers make the news, it's not because he's in trouble with the law.

Kanye also fluctuates between the dark side and the force.  Just a couple of years ago he dropped Donda (2021), the only gospel-esque album ever to feature a bunch of popular gangsta rappers.  But since then, he's most notably participated in Vultures 1 (2024), a project which for instance has a naked woman on its cover.

Circa West's divorce with Kim Kardashian being finalized in 2022, around the time he was publicly making statements against Jews, it felt as if his music career was all but over.  You could tell that he wasn't particularly interested in maintaining the Christian path, that Yeezus wasn't going to transition fully into that genre.  Concurrently, there wasn't as much interest in him on the streets.  Meanwhile, in terms of maintaining his status as a mainstream pop star, he had burned a lot of bridges in criticizing and negatively stereotyping the Jewish community, amongst other acts.

But surprisingly, Vultures 1 was a major hit, at least in terms of chart success.  It's a collaborative album between Kanye and Ty Dolla $ign.  Ty isn't that much younger than Ye, but he is associated with a younger and therefore trendier generation of rappers.  And you'd have to presume that reality at least contributed to the project being so well-received (on streaming services) when it was dropped.

The reason I'm bringing this all up is because recently, the ever-outspoken Charlemagne Tha God went on a couple of tirades against Kanye.  Euphemistically interpreted, he argued that Ye isn't nearly as poppin' musically as he once was.

As an example, Charlemagne pointed out the fact that West recently dropped a remix of Like That (2024), a hit song that Kendrick Lamar and co. originally put out in March.  Yeezy further used that opportunity to diss his longtime, equally-popular rival Drake.  But said remix didn't generate much buzz.  So Charlemagne was like, if this were 10 years ago and Ye dissed Drake, the music world would have been abuzz instead of ignoring the track.  Or put otherwise, West has fallen off.

In Kanye's defense and what Charlemagne should have acknowledged when making those statements is that no musician stays hot forever.  I talk a lot about older rappers in this blog, of which West can be considered, since he became professionally active in the '90s.  He's actually one of the wiser ones, because the careers of famous musicians inevitably reach a point where the only way they can only maintain A-list recognition is by their personal lives being newsworthy.  It's that type of recognition that has prolonged the relevancy of West's music career.  I'm sure there's a lot of older rappers who wouldn't mind hopping on a track with Future and Metro Boomin.  But unless they enjoy a Yeezus level of fame, they're not likely to be granted the opportunity.

Dropping songs with rappers who are from a younger generation is a risky endeavor.  Rap is an art form whereas participants tend to perform to the level of their collaborators.  So if the person on the track with you is more sophisticated, you know to also bring your A game.  But if the collaborators are noticeably younger, then you have may have to turn things down a degree or two, potentially appearing retrogressive or immature in the process.  And that seems to be the issue with the music Kanye has been putting out of late.  It's as if lyrically, he's intentionally made himself less intelligent in order to appeal to a generation that's young enough to be his offspring.

No Face, the second single from Ghostface album Set the Tone (Guns & Roses) (2024),
was released as a single (with the above cover art) on 31 May 2024.

That's why I was elated to hear that he came out with a track alongside Ghostface Killah.  Ghostface, as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, is not only a pioneer of the type of 1990s' rap that spawned artists like Kanye, but the Wu itself is known to take lyricism very seriously.  No Face would be akin to Ye teaming up with someone he undoubtedly looked up to, considering how hot the Clan was in their heyday, well before West's career took off.

THE FALL OF THE WU & THE PERMANENCY OF GHOSTFACE

The Wu-Tang Clan is another interesting study.  Looking at them now, it's hard to believe that there was a time when they were arguably the most-popular act in rap.

I have a number of theories as to why their era at the top was so short-lived.  For starters, to Wu became too proud of their success.  They were also too inclusive and didn't realize the value of collaborations until it was too late.  They didn't properly invest in their younger stars, in anticipation that the torch would eventually and inevitably have to be passed.  The Wu alienated a lot of their fanbase by presenting themselves along the lines of revolutionaries and then, after 9/11, taking more of a patriotic stance.  And of course there was the death of Ol' Dirty Bastard, one of the most-unique artists the genre has ever produced.

The Wu-Tang Clan recently experienced a resurgence in popularity due to being the subject of a well-received BET biopic series.  But musically, they lost their relevancy a long time ago.

The one member of the Clan who seems to have bucked that trend more effectively than the others is Ghostface.  It may no longer be a situation, as with the '90s, where people are rushing out to buy his albums.  But Ghost has managed to consistently drop projects throughout the decades - from his debut solo outing, 1996's Ironman, up until Set the Tone (Guns & Roses), which just came out last month.  Besides that, his proficiency as an emcee remains recognized by fans.  So there are high expectations, at least from individuals such as myself, in terms of this collaboration with Ye.

That said, this isn't the first time the rappers have teamed up.  Back on 2006's More Fish, Ghost featured Ye  on the remix of his song Back Like That.  Then in 2012 the two of them, along with Pusha T, released New God Flow.1, from Kanye West Presents: Good Music - Cruel Summer.

THE LYRICS

From the onset, it's established that this isn't a conventional mainstream rap per se.  We are met with a rapper, Ghostface, who isn't priding himself on his toughness or wealth but rather the fact that he has "soul".  In that regard, he references popular African-American media of the 1970s, such as the TV shows "Good Times and What's Happening", as well as the musical group, the Jackson 5.  Ghost also shouts out one "Zion Zamir", but it's not clear at this time who he's referring to.

His lyrics are more in tune with genre standards by the time the first verse rolls around, in that Killah starts off the passage by alluding to street beef.  But another thing about the Wu-Tang, especially the likes Ghostface and Raekwon, is their preference to use unorthodox, sometimes hard-to-decipher figurative language.

But the verse isn't that complicated, in terms of ascertaining its main subject, which is Ghost depicting himself as a viable killer.  That has been his persona since day one, going back to the days of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993).  Ghost also hints at his wealth and the concept of major drug dealing, the latter of which is also one of his favorite topics from the 1990s.

As relayed in the chorus, the title of the track also harps back to why he adopted the name "Ghostface".  That's because when Killah strikes in a street assault, like a shooting for instance, he does so with "no face", i.e. without leaving behind any evidence.

West likewise starts off the second verse by alluding to a criminal lifestyle.  But the passage quickly transforms to Yeezy making raunchy statements about women and his sex/romantic life.

Based on the few tracks of his I've looked at post-Donda, those appear to now be his favorite subject matters.  And all things considered, it does make sense.  For instance, there's been rumors circulating that Ye is one the verge of opening his own porn company.  And let's not forget that he often has his current wife, Bianca Censori, out in the public, in full view of photographers, more or less nude.  So we can safely presume that of all the benefits being a celebrity has afforded Ye, what fascinates him the most is access to females.

This track, the seventh on the playlist of Set the Tone, is led by Ghostface.  He dominates the song, and in a way Kanye's contribution is minimal, only constituting a verse, as opposed to Killah being afforded two, as well as the choruses, intro and outro.

As for the third verse, Ghost once again focuses on this storyline of being a stickup kid.  But in this segment, it's more along the lines of insinuating that he was engaged in that lifestyle circa the late-1980s (i..e. the reference to Biz Markie).  So it seems as if what Ghost is trying to say, all lyrics considered, is that he never forsook that line of work.  Instead, being a gangster has proceeded to make him rich.

So this is a dual-subject track, in a manner of speaking.  Ghostface dedicates ample bars to presenting himself as a successful and formidable gunslinger.  But Kanye, even if only briefly within the grand scheme of the song, rather focuses on women.

THE AUDIO

The instrumental is perhaps the best parts of this track.  Its producers are Backpack and EZ Elpee.  The former is apparently from College Park, a part of Atlanta.  And the latter has been in the game for a minute, having produced the 1995 Junior MAFIA classic, Get Money.

Rap is a genre that relies heavily on instrumentals, and throughout the years, Ghostface has had the privilege of gracing quite a few exceptional ones.  But on this song, it's really Kanye who catches the flow almost flawlessly.

The cover at to Ghostface Killah's 12th studio album,
Set the Tone (Guns & Roses)

"SET THE TONE (GUNS & ROSES)"

Ghostface enlisted a plethora of rappers to guest star on Set the Tone.  The list includes the likes of Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Remy Ma, Busta Rhymes, Nas, AZ, Method Man and of course Raekwon.  Every song on the album has a featured artist, so it's basically a collaborative project.  That's not really surprising.  What is though is that all of the recognizable rappers are from Ghostface's generation, as opposed to a bunch of younger, trendier cats.  

Set the Tone was dropped through Mass Appeal, a label whose roster consists mainly of rappers from the 1990s'.  So with all of that in mind, it doesn't appear to have sold particularly well.  But the album did manage to chart in the UK.

That said, I'm not able to ascertain why it's subtitled "Guns & Roses", which of course is the name of a popular rock band (i.e. Guns N' Roses).

CONCLUSION

It's easy to conclude that West's verse is the highlight of No Face.  Complex referred to it as "one of Ye's best featured verses in years".  It isn't so outstanding that it'll make you jump out of your seat.  Some portions of it, from an audio standpoint, are unintelligible.  But I was apparently correct in speculating that rapping alongside Ghostface inspired West to step up his game a bit.  So maybe Ghost should've given him two verses instead of one.