Twenty years ago, we were in the midst of a Wu-Tang revival after a period of disappointing albums at the turn of the millennium. Masta Killa’s long-awaited debut “No Said Date” was an immediate fan favourite, Sunz of Man came through with their delayed (read: bootlegged) sophomore “The First Testament” (as “Elements”), and Ghostface Killah pulled double duty, appearing all over his crew Theodore Unit’s release “718” as well as his own “Pretty Toney Album”, which saw him continue his excellent run of projects, culminating in 2006’s “Fishscale”. Sure, Method Man’s “Tical 0” album was less consistent, RZA was off making movie soundtracks, and 2004 ended in a bad way for the Wu with ODB’s passing, but it felt like the identity of the Wu-Tang Clan was back in favor. This ultimately built up to the reunion of the Clan in 2007, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

A lot has happened in the past two decades, and Ghostface Killah albums shifted from annual mainstays in the release schedule, to an unpredictable stopgap before the long-awaited sequel to “Supreme Clientele”. It’s been five years since the disappointing “Ghostface Killahs”, and one glimpse at the tracklisting for Ghost’s twelfth album made me suspicious. Has he been getting advice from Meth? Because every song here has a guest feature. Three “Meth Lab” albums barely qualify as canon in the Method Man library, glorified mixtapes under any other name, and “Set the Tone” finds the Wu-Tang purist in me wishing to dismiss this as a similar side project. An experiment. A collection of loosies. Except, interviews with Ghost suggest it’s intentional. We’ve been here before with the divisive “Ghostdini” album in 2009, where he went all R&B. The subtitle of “Set the Tone” is Guns and Roses which is to capture the two different sides of Ghostface – his grimy hardcore raps, and his oversexed pimp talk.

This sounds like a smart idea – appease the core fanbase demanding traditional Wu-Tang, and allow Ghostface to indulge in his own love affair for soul, which he admits he’s probably more a fan of than rap anyway. It’s also worth noting the context of this album’s release date: four days before his memoir “Rise of a Killah” drops. If you follow him on social media, you’ll know Ghost loves money, relentlessly shilling NFTs and Bitcoin, and after U-God and Raekwon’s successful ventures into the world of book publishing, Ghostface Killah was naturally next in line. It helps to explain perhaps, but not excuse, what a messy album “Set the Tone” is.

So what’s worth checking out? Method Man is always good value, and he suits the plodding menace of “Pair of Hammers” which is as close as we get to that Wu-Tang feel. Raekwon is briefly on “Skate Odyssey”, although unfairly relegated to eight bars at the end of what feels like a showpiece for vocalist October London. I quite liked the Fat Joe track, but even that has a strange bit where Joe has seemingly only recorded 14 bars, with Ghostface randomly appearing for the last two bars which are clearly filler.

All of these guests can be distracting, but Ghostface’s performances are as you’d expect. It’s not quite as precise with the abstract vocabulary, a bit diet-Ghost if you will, but his flow remains sharp and his energy levels are high for a 54-year-old. The best track is “Scar Tissue” with Nas, which rightfully sees QB’s Finest proclaim “sheeesh” after Ghostface gets busy over a mean T The Human production. Previous versions of myself would immediately term this as spazzing out but it’s not a term I’m comfortable with, and thankfully it’s not one you hear much these days (rightfully so), given its offensive nature, but it only emphasises how offensive language in rap has changed since the days where the world worshipped the Wu. My point here is that Ghostface Killah’s the only high-profile rapper I still hear hurling the word faggot around with real venom behind it. Considering his own son is gay, and has publically shared his experiences on how the man behind the Ghostface Killah character is a deadbeat dad, it takes Ghostface from mean rapper, to just plain mean. At least it’s only used once, as opposed to three times on “Ghostface Killahs”.

Family is referenced in “Plan B”, but it’s a tough listen. Not just because it sounds like ass, but it’s a song about men encouraging women to take the pill, or better yet, get an abortion, so Ghost can continue to cheat on his woman. It’s another moment that paints the iconic rapper in a poor light – a Roc Marciano or a Mach-Hommy could approach the same topic and you know it wouldn’t feel dirty, or awkward. That’s before we get to the horrendous reliance on Autotune, which plagues much of “Set the Tone”. There’s a lot of this, whether it’s with AZ, or Kanye West. Men in their 50s talking about their dick game. He trades sex raps with Ja Rule, for fuck’s sake. It just lacks the polish and maturity of a “Back Like That”, or the inventive lyricism of “Ice Cream” or “Super Model”. Don’t get me started on the pointless skits.

It’s been difficult to take Kanye West seriously for a while now, and his performance on “No Face” shows that feeling is reciprocated with a verse littered with corny lines and strange noises. It’s a shame, because the beat hits hard and suits Ghost’s style, but then it is a reworked “Mighty Healthy”.  

“Touch You” will make your ears bleed. The hook is iffy too – You should let me fuck you – it’s something that is present throughout “Set the Tone”. Listening to this alongside other Ghostface Killah albums it did make me sad. The performance levels are certainly still there, but there’s too much nonsense attached to it. Busta Rhymes also released a bad album recently, and he appears on “Shots”, an admittedly catchy Caribbean number, but it again feels like a missed opportunity.

“Let’s get Ghostface and Busta on a track”

“OK, that should be CRAZY”

“Yeah, yeah, what type of beat?”

“It has to be reggaeton”



Are DJs and nightclubs playing these new Busta and Ghostface records? Are they busting these out on their tours? I can’t see it. This feels like I’m tearing Ghostface Killah apart, but I’m just a fan wrestling with the long drawn-out demise of the Wu. The notion that Ghostface has this brilliant discography is no longer true – maybe GZA was right to step away in his prime because he now has the best catalogue. He teased his “Dark Matter” album for over a decade, which would be about his interest in science and space, but he might be doing us a favour by never releasing it. When Ghostface is left to his own devices, it’s clear his output suffers. He admits to not liking deadlines to work to (particularly on 1996’s “Ironman”), and this album features way too many mediocre tracks for any artist, let alone Ghostface.

For one of the great storytellers in rap, it’s disheartening to hear how out of touch he is with Hip-Hop too. Decrying the lack of storytellers in his interview with Rolling Stone, when we’ve got Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Chino XL, Elzhi, Danny Brown and Pharoahe Monch proving him otherwise. And that’s just rappers that have worked with Ghost in recent years. Namedropping Slick Rick, who hasn’t released an album in 25 years emphasises, and confirms, this notion that certain rappers simply don’t listen to rap like that.

The frustrating thing about “Set the Tone” is I have no idea who it is even aimed at. Wu-Tang fans might enjoy some of the collaborations with rappers like Nas and AZ, but the production lacks the feel and style of Wu-Tang. There’s no Wu-Elements assistance here. Ghost is a wordsmith, who throws lines out in wild, unpredictable patterns over tough breakbeats that complement his grimy New York accent, and these moments are few and far between. Part of me wonders if Ghost knows this isn’t a great album, but he had to put something out. All the video interviews and podcasts I’ve seen him on, talk about his other records. Even Ghostface does, ending the album with an advertisement for “Supreme Clientele 2”, an album that’s supposedly 75% done. Given “Liquid Swords 2”, “Muddy Waters 2” and “Crystal Meth” are all supposedly in development, I don’t hold out much hope for SC2 either, particularly after sitting with “Set the Tone”. 

Ghostface Killah :: Set the Tone
5Overall Score