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Ghostface 

The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam)

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The gritty, woozy sound that defined the Wu-Tang Clan's mid-'90s dominance still pounds in the eardrums of the Hip-Hop Nation. It's the reason Ghostface Killah's last album, 2001's pop-friendly Bulletproof Wallets, was so poorly received by the street that it "went wood." And it's why his new single, "Run" -- a chase through siren-screaming streets, with a RZA beat rolled in vintage N.Y.C. grime -- put the block immediately on lock. But while Ghost might occasionally haunt those old, unforgiving alleyways, most of Pretty Toney confirms that Tony Starks (just Ghostface these days) is a lovah now, not a Killah.

For diehards, that's the cue to exit. Yet since his classic solo debut, Ironman, Ghost has always depended on old-soul warmth to back his high-pitched verses. If the R&B samples are now sweeter ("Save Me Dear" is borderline saccharine) and sometimes longer ("Holla" simply bites its source whole), they also accurately reflect a rapper coming to grips with unexpected maturity; "Love God," he rhymes, "He let me see past 32." Whether it's better to burn out or fade away is an old question, but Pretty Toney makes a pretty good soundtrack for debate.

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