Some might view the Ghostface Killah song “Holla,” off his 2004 LP The Pretty Toney Album, as being a minimalist, lazy, unoriginal, nonsensical, or just plain bad piece of art, if it is indeed even art; such critics, however, miss the postmodern genius of the Wu-Tang member and Theodore Unit founder’s radical aesthetic. After all, similar charges were leveled against poets like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, who are now firmly entrenched in the literary canon of Western civilization, and contemporary painters like David Salle, who pioneered American visual postmodernism with a succde scandale in 1980’s New York.Order now
Ghostface produced “Holla” himself. At first glance, this seems to fall more in line with the punk “do it yourself” aesthetic than any sort of postmodernism. However, in the context of this song, “producing” simply means Ghostface chose the song he wanted to rap over, in this case The Delfonics’ 1968 smash hit “La La (Means I Love You). ” Because of this unique nature, an analysis of “Holla” is not possible without at least a cursory glance at the song that serves as its backdrop. This song, an enduring classic of soul in common time, was produced by Thom Bell and Stan Watson.
It begins with the high-pitched sample of a fiddle, with a light drum loop that persists throughout the song. The fiddle soon drops out, leaving the drums, whose perseverance mirrors that of the main singer, who is determined to win the target of his affection despite his lack of wealth (“Now I don’t wear no diamond ring”). While he cannot compete with his fellow suitors materially, he makes up for it in sincerity: while “their lines don’t mean a thing,” he says in the first verse, he adds in the second that “the things I am sayin’ are true. His earnestness is also evident in the longing nature of his voice, the way he cannot even find words to express his feelings, saying instead that “la la la la la la la la la means I love you,” accented by harmonizing with the other Delfonics and a more classical sounding string sample with a romantic affect.
After a short instrumental interlude, the singer once more asserts his sincerity before the hauntingly iconic chorus repeats, fading into the background, as the addressee of the courtship interjects “oh, you’ll have to understand. This repetition combined with what we can only assume is the beginning of a rejection gives the song a tragic poignance.
With this preliminary analysis out of the way, we can proceed to the heart of the matter: Ghostface’s work of art, “Holla. ” And indeed it is art, even though the only technical production he does is sample his fellow Wu-Tang member going “BLAOW! ” while he raps over “La-La (Means I Love You). ” We do not question Ezra Pound’s status as artist, and his magnum opus, the Cantos, are a re-telling of Dante’s Divine Comedy that rely heavily on classical mythology.
We do not challenge David Salle’s claim to artistic integrity, and every single figure in his paintings comes from another work of art. So why are the standards different for Ghostface when he chooses a classic song as a background for his own (admittedly challenging) lyrics, especially when he does it in such a creative way, playfully interacting with the Delfonics song while presenting his own coherent verbal vision? It is likely that it is simply a reflection of the general societal attitude towards hip-hop.
Despite commercial success and numerous scholarly studies from musicologists, music theorists, anthropologists, and many other academics in various fields, the mainstream refuses to accept hip-hop as a legitimate art-form. The song itself, as mentioned before, has incredibly minimal levels of production; Ghostface simply raps over the song, not even bothering to change the levels of the vocals or instrumentation. While this technique – or lack thereof – is minimalistic in theory, in practice it often leads to a cluttered feel, as Ghostface’s vocals vie for primacy with those of the Delfonics, sometimes dominating, sometimes being drowned out.
Indeed, one can hardly call “La-La (Means I Love You)” the background track, as the same emphasis is given to it as Ghostface’s rapping. This is not – indeed, cannot be – a sign of laziness or incompetence on the part of Ghostface. It would not have been difficult for him to take the vocals out of the track, or at least lower their level. Ghostface is not an underground rapper with severe fiscal and temporal constraints; so, it must have been a conscious, deliberate decision. If we accept that the choice was intentional, then, it becomes not only unique but bold and revolutionary.
Like Salle, the founding father of American postmodern painting, Ghostface takes the consensus view of his medium and turns it on its head, defying all aesthetic expectations. One counter-argument is that anyone with basic audio software could place vocals over another song. So what separates the artist like Ghostface from the amateur sitting in his basement imagining himself a member of the Bomb Squad? One obvious difference is the vocals themselves. Few could write lyrics like Ghostface, and even fewer could match his explosive, emotionally dynamic, almost melodramatic flow.
Holla” is not only saturated with end rhyme, but also contains masterful flourishes of internal rhyme (“Bartender’s nervous, afraid to serve us, bad service/Un-smacked him on purpose and see this drunk come and burp us”) and assonance (“Paper chasers, Starky stayed up in the makings”). In addition to this elevated mode of poetic speech (in Roman Jakobson’s words, Ghostface “projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination”), Ghostface gains artistic integrity through his innovative use of “La-La (Means I Love You).
Salle once described the difference between amateur and artistic collage by saying that an artists’ collage is different in that it has a coherent theme: anyone can cut and paste pictures together, not anyone can cut and paste pictures of various motifs with symbolic significance together. Because sampling is indeed a kind of sonic collage, this description is analogous to “Holla,” and because Ghostface did not arbitrarily choose a Delfonics song over which to rap, he is an artist.
The juxtaposition of the Delfonics’ poignant song of unattainable love with Ghostface’s lyrics of trademark Wu-Tang bravado (as reinforced by the samples of ODB shouting “BLAOW,” which come from the song shame, a practical mission statement of Wu-Arrogance) is striking. While the Delfonics sing about taking a true love into your arms, Ghostface sings about “wreck y’all lames” and “throw the Tec to your brain. ” Also striking is Ghostface’s actual interaction with the lyrics of the older song. The titular word, taken from the chorus, serves to play on the Delfonics song.
As guest artist Allah Real sings “Holla holla holla if you want to, I love you,” the final syllable in holla coincides with the Delfonics’ la’s, as does the final I love you. As the Delfonics croon “I don’t wear a diamond ring/I don’t even have a song to sing,” Ghostface concurrently raps “We don’t need no diamond rings/All we need is a drum like, fuck it, he can rhyme, I’ll sing. ” Though temporally these lines are practically equivalent, one can interpret it as the ideal response to the line in the Delfonics song, the one the singer never got from the apologetic but distant object of his affection.
Through this ingenious interplay of his own lyrics with the lyrics of the song he raps over, as well as the very juxtaposition of the two jarringly dissimilar songs, Ghostface Killah creates a brilliantly original work of art that challenges – as all of hip-hop does to some extent – preconceived ideas of what constitutes art. However, Ghostface takes it even further than his peers, blasting through the barrier of modernism into the brave new world of the postmodern.