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A rap CEO and publisher's poet on two very different musical memoirs

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Dig, if you will, a picture: Rapper Dennis "Ghostface Killah" Coles skips out of his girl's crib just ahead of a police raid, seeking refuge at the home of his friend and colleague Method Man. Busting in at Meth's place unannounced, he finds his friend in mid-fuck. At the sound of someone coming through the door, Method Man tumbles out of bed, reaching for his gun on the nightstand, but stubs his toe in the process. The woman, who is asthmatic, grabs at the sheets, screaming and struggling to breathe. The previously rattled Ghost cracks up at this sight; Meth is pissed, his mood made worse because his dick keeps slipping through the slit in his boxers.

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This happens on "Yolanda's House," one of the best tracks on Ghostface Killah's new album, The Big Doe Rehab, and it's typical Ghostface: vulgar, funny, so vivid and in-the-moment you can practically smell the residue of pot smoke and sex in the room.

Lots of rappers — most of them these days — work the same terrain, spinning tales of drug deals, gun violence, casual sex, and conspicuous consumption. But few of them are great artists. Ghostface is the best since the late Notorious B.I.G. at turning underworld/underclass vignettes into gripping and witty musical cinema and at giving these stories moral gravity without speechifying. If any modern rapper should have been a scenarist for The Wire, it's Ghostface.

You can hear it again on Big Doe Rehab's "Walk Around," a first-person account of shooting someone that goes places contemporary so-called gangsta rap rarely does: The protagonist, so rattled by what he's done that he vomits in the getaway car, freaks out at the blood and tissue on his clothing. ("Y'all niggas would bug out too if you had somebody's flesh on you.")

The Big Doe Rehab is Ghostface Killah's third full album of new material since March 2006, following his masterpiece Fishscale and the better-than-anyone-could-expect extras disc More Fish. It's a run that marks him as one of pop music's most productive artists though one who's a particularly specialized, even rarefied taste.

On The Big Doe Rehab, Ghostface surrounds his sharp storytelling with the deep-soul samples and off-kilter humor that are his trademarks. The single "We Celebrate" is a blaring paean to the good life, gangsta-style: "Like my baby's first steps, ya heard!" or "Like one of my goons just came home!" "Supa GFK" is stream-of-consciousness rap over Johnny Watson's "Superman Lover."

Still, The Big Doe Rebab is a lot closer to More Fish than Fishscale — a little too heavy on guest stars and posse members and not as coherent. Fishscale came at you in what felt like orchestrated movements; More Fish was, by definition, just a bunch of songs. The Big Doe Rehab is more the latter. Still, Ghostface's minor work bests a thematically similar major work from his Def Jam benefactor Jay-Z.

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With his mature CEO's album Kingdom Come falling on deaf ears, Jay-Z's American Gangster feels less driven by personal expression than by a desire to give the people what they want. It's an album of Jay-Z reminding everyone that he used to deal drugs. And, like the overblown movie that inspired it, American Gangster isn't thoughtful enough to be great.

There are defensive childhood remembrances ("No Hook": "I'm so fo sho, it's no facade/'Stay out of trouble,' mama said as mama sighed/Her fear, her youngest son bein' victim of homicide/But I gotta get you outta here, mama, or I'ma die, inside") and thrilling evocations of the amoral indulgences of drug-trade triumph (the "black superhero music" of "Roc Boys"). But, for the most part, Jay-Z is not a storyteller of Ghostface's caliber. His primary gift isn't conceptual or even lyrical, but vocal: the illusion of effortlessness in his honeyed flow. He's the purer MC — the best since Biggie in his own way — and American Gangster peaks when Jay-Z sounds most relaxed, as on "Success," where he raps over a spare track of vampy organ and scattered beat, rewriting an old Eminem lyric before discarding his crime-boss persona: "I used to give shit/Now I don't give a shit more/Truth be told I had more fun when I was piss poor."

Jay-Z rarely sounds so free on American Gangster, and that's part of the problem. Ghostface Killah's lower profile and more modest expectations may be what allow him to be the better artist. The superstar Jay-Z has no choice but to reach for significance, while Ghostface digs deeper by just telling stories and cracking jokes.

Chris Herrington

Grades: The Big Doe Rehab: A-; American Gangster: B+

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