Saturday, March 6, 2010

"All That I Got is You" by Ghostface Killah feat. Mary J. Blige (1996)

Why is is that violins are able to push the limit between sentimental and maudlin so? The simple eight-bar sample of piano and strings, taken from a Jackson 5 song and played over and over and over, ought to be a sentimentality overdose. It ought to be tacky. Yet somehow it pierces the heart, just enough for Ghostface's words to pour in.

The Wu-Tang Clan was, in retrospect, a collection of talents so varied that some of them would never have gotten near a mic on their own (solo) merits while many of them were revolutionary in their own way. Their business plan was amazing, as was the fact that they were able to work at a pace like this - with, at its peak, a new RZA-produced release every two or three months. Obviously the quality was not 100%, but it was still remarkably high. Like most 90s hip-hop, a Wu-Tang related release would have upwards of ten songs that you'd never need to hear twice. But the remainder... if marketing considerations could ever allow for it, a real Wu-Tang 'Greatest Hits' album might just be one of the best CD collections ever. And it would most certainly have to include this song.

Ghostface, as he would ultimately shorten his name: a ghost. Something that skirts on the edges of reality, not always easy to see. On the Wu-Tang début, Ghostface Killah seems like one of the more marginal of the background players. He doesn't seem like a star at all. And in fact all these years later when he's managed to outshine any other Wu-Tang, he still doesn't seem like a star. He has a curious work ethic wherein he seems to keep recording out of a need to do so more than out of a need to be famous. His best stuff is quite subtle.

Like this curious creation: lengthy film quote, one super-long verse rapped by Ghostface start to finish with no pause or interruption, a 'verse' (if you want to call it that) sung my Mary J. Blige, some stoned babbling by an irrelevant hanger-on named 'Poppa Wu', nothing else. This process takes five and a half minutes. All that we've got in the background is that strings-and-piano sample over and over and over again. Ghostface's lyrical thrust is not quite MJB's, and neither are really complemented by Poppa Wu's, um, dissertation. It's three different songs that barely recognise each other. And one of those three is quite disposable.

Yet the result still never fails to bring out the waterworks. Ghostface's celebration of strength and resilience in the face of poverty is so heartfelt that you never for a moment doubt its autobiographical nature. Rappers are often very eloquent while speaking about their mothers, and Ghostface pays his mother a very touching tribute here.

Mary J. Blige is not playing the role of Ghostface's mother - his father leaving them is referenced only in passing, whereas it's the main point of Mary J. Blige's part. Ghostface's mother doesn't seem like the type to do drugs, whereas Mary J. Blige admits to it. I'm not sure if either party spent much time making sure they were on the same page, but it doesn't really matter. Mary J. Blige is a hell of a singer and she really performs here. This is pretty direct warts-and-all drama, tragic against the violins, where Ghostface rather brilliantly lets Blige and the strings carry the tragedy, so that his story can be truly effective while never actually using the language of tragedy. His story of strength in adversity is something that anyone who has lived with true poverty can relate to, and it ultimately says much more than Poppa Wu's 'sermon' at the end, which dissolves into a kind of stoned laughter that threatens to make a complete mockery of all that has come before, could ever hope to say.
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