In the hazy, sweltering confines of The Blind Pig Wednesday night, all it took was one knowing wink from Ghostface Killah early in his set to make the crowd ripple into booming cheers.
A founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, his streak of consistently dense, rewarding albums has made him one of the only singularly gripping rappers alive; Ghostface could do no wrong this night. With no hype, no PR trumpets announcing his arrival over the previous weeks, he seemed to slip into Ann Arbor visible only to those wise enough to keep their ears to the ground.
Even after a confidence-shaking opening set from rap duo Swollen Members, whose awkward, sterile onstage demeanor didn’t do anything to boost their pointless boasts and maudlin confessions, Ghostface prowled the small stage at the crowded Pig and tore through a captivating range of moods as he rattled off verses from stone-cold Wu-Tang classics, crowd favorites from his solo work and even a slice of his upcoming disc, Fish Scale.
Accompanied by Theodore Unit, his clique of hungry but as-yet-unremarkable MCs (save for the surprisingly adroit and cool Trife Da God) and his frighteningly haggard and desperate one-time Wu-Tang associate Capadonna, Ghostface ambled his way through the expected Theodore Unit efforts like the thumping drama of “Smith Brothers” before giving his compatriots their last moments in his spotlight.
Then – only needing to glide to the tip of the stage and adjust his hat – Ghostface launched into the cyclic, soulful “Nutmeg,” hollering, “Spiced-out Calvin Coolidge, loungin’ with seven duelers / The Great Adventures of Slick, lickin’ with six Rugers.”
For the record, you’re not expected to know everything he’s saying. But when he smashes together allusion after allusion, running syllables together and loosely crafting Mafioso fantasies, the pure momentum of it all takes hold like nothing else in popular music today.
Stripped down in appearance, only sporting a weathered Yankees cap and a solitary chain, he stomped out the quietly ominous “Holla” and the remarkably sweet “Be This Way” nearly back to back (both songs are from last year’s The Pretty Tony Album) and rode the shift in mood expertly. His face went from hardened wisdom to pleading at just one raise of his brow or twitch of his lip.
Mere snippets of hits sent the already hot crowd into appreciative shouts and bellows. A smoky mass of people slowed down as Ghostface took his infamously silky verse from Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” and drew out each line, swaying effortlessly on stage.
It’s fitting that Ghostface, who wisely “treats albums like babies,” as he remarked, is one of the most unexpected rap acts to grace Ann Arbor in a few years. With often surreal images and methodically uncommercial approach to song-making (he rarely crafts a melody out of something other than a pure pre-’70s soul sample) and battle-hardened, frequently violent narratives, he’s really the only rapper in the country who legitimately draws equal sections of his fanbase from collegiate, underground rap fans and an older, blue-collar demographic.
For some audience members, their reference point is his starling appearance on the latest album from esoteric glitch-rap kingpin Prefuse 73. Others probably remember his days as the Wu-Tang Clan’s boy wonder.
After a whirlwind hour onstage, during which he even managed to crank out “Be Easy,” a tight, formal song from Fish Scale, Ghostface had little left to accomplish.
Canvassing an exhausted, captivated crowd for ideas for the last song of the night, Ghostface settled on “One,” a cinematic, regal piece from Supreme Clientele. Some people chanted along, mimicking line after line. Others stood content, shoulder to shoulder with other giddy listeners who probably have nothing in common but a few rap albums. Ypsi or Ann Arbor, backpacker or Wu-Tang loyalist – it didn’t matter.
On Wednesday night, everyone’s eyes were fixed on one man’s face.