While formulaic in spots, Illa Ghee's "Social Graffiti" wins with surprisingly varied production and consistent surface-level bombast and street similes.
With radio airwaves clogged with marbly-mouth nursery rhyming, unintelligible autotune crooning, and mindless rhythms devoted to the art of moving butts, there is not much room for a paradigm shift in the foreseeable future. Consequentially, The New York Knicks will win a championship before veteran emcee Illa Ghee becomes a household name in mainstream, Top 40 Rap. But this is hardly an indictment of the Brooklyn native. Although Ghee doesn’t have a Wikipedia page to speak of, his streetcreditreport.com score is solid, and over the years he has procured the respect of both fans and peers alike. Social Graffiti marks Ghee’s third official studio release, and in the title track he makes his mission statement clear: “I spit words that the world sees awkwardly / It’s not poetry, more or less graffiti.”
Whatever classifications the words may fall under, one thing’s for certain: Ghee’s content is wholly submerged in the gritty canals of street life. Throughout the disc, Ghee’s acute lyricism seems to come about both efficiently and effortlessly. Instead of relying on a few tried and true names, there is a variety of producers, but Ghee confounds history by escaping a disjointed and wayward feel. Fame of M.O.P. fame provides a high-octane chorus on “Salute The General,” and. He’s joined by another New York legend in Sean Price on “Speak To Em.” The song continues an impressive string of tracks the two have collaborated on in recent years, such as “Enigma” and “Speak To Em,” and with Ghee, Price may have found the second best option he rhymed alongside Jahmal Bush in the heyday of Heltah Skeltah.
For anyone both unfamiliar with his past work and constantly on the prowl for lyricism, Ghee will no doubt impress and impress again, but it is not long before the formula leaves a little to be desired. The rhymes rarely delve away from surface-level bombast and street similes, and with every opportunity to establish his identity and endear himself to potential fans, Ghee retreats into conventional territory. On “James Worthy,” Ghee equates himself to the former Laker who despite his HOF status, never quite received the same level of superstar treatment of his Showtime counterparts. The concept is undoubtedly compelling, and the stage is set for Ghee to give us some personalized insight into his mindstate, but the result is more of the same, and the comparison is rendered messy at best despite a solid overall performance.
But even though his illustrations lack the vivid see-what-I-see detail of the Notorious B.I.G, they are methodical, penetrating, and most importantly, difficult to ignore. On “Razor Blade Vomit” he spits, “I never played that tight-jean game / If I learned anything it’s how to aim.” However, the middle stretch of the album highlights a more substantial crack in the album’s infrastructure. Too often Ghee unfortunately falls prey to one of the most stereotypical criticisms of New York rappers; their lackluster song crafting skills. With lyrics aplenty, in certain spots it seems as though the hooks are an afterthought for Ghee, and consequentially songs have a difficult time transitioning into memorable standalone moments. For instance, Juju of the Beatnuts handles the hook duties on “Bruised Ego,” but the chorus trails in comparison to the high-level lyricism.
On “90,” the legendary Large Professor laces Ghee with some vintage boom-bap production, and the Brooklynite pays respect to the Golden Age. Nitpicking aside, the impressive roster of guest stars on this relatively low profile release is a true testament to Ghee and the respect he has garnered from Hip Hop’s elite over the years. Ghee (almost) saves the best for last with “On The Bklyn Side,” teaming up with Steele of Smif N Wessun and O.C. Shawneci ambitiously samples The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” and the three O.G.s take turns in crafting an instant nominee for East Coast song of the year.
Social Graffiti will probably be ignored by the loudest critics of contemporary New York Hip Hop, but Ghee joins Onyx and Mobb Deep as veteran emcees who are hellbent on keeping tradition alive with their impressive 2014 releases. And speaking of the latter, most fans of Ghee became stuck off the realness via his guest spot on “I Can’t Get Enough of It” on the critically acclaimed Hell On Earth album. Social Graffiti is a strong indication that Ghee wasn’t lying back in 1996, and hopefully he continues to be a trailblazer in the underground.