Kicking off our new Original Content series "Hip-Hop's Best Verses," revisit one of rap's most explosive and detailed crime sagas, Ghostface Killah's masterful "Shakey Dog."
Introducing our new series Hip-Hop's Best Verses -- self-explanatory, really. The aim is to take a deep dive into some of the rap game's best verses of all time, exploring the bars, the flows, the cadences, and everything that makes them withstand the test of time. Less of a ranking, more of a celebration of lyrical greatness. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments, and enjoy.
I. GHOSTFACE KILLAH - SHAKEY DOG
There are few lyricists that challenge listeners like Ghostface Killah. Rarely easy to unpack on a surface level, Ghost’s bars often require deeper analysis. Not necessarily for the sake of clarity, but to fully revel in the sensory overload he’s capable of delivering. Arguably the most detail-oriented emcee in the entire rap pantheon, a single Ghostface verse can feel closer to a short story in terms of immersion. As such, much of Tony Starks’ most effective penmanship is cinematic in nature, boasting complete narratives brimming with fleshed-out characters, high-stakes scenarios, comedic relief, and more often than not --- a brutal and violent end.
Honoring his best verse is no easy task, but it’s hard not to look to the vivid Fishscale highlight “Shakey Dog” as a strong contender. Produced by Lewis Parker, Ghostface wastes little time in drawing us into his world, setting things off with a glimpse into his character -- the tale’s protagonist, antihero though he may be. A note -- Ghost never insults his listeners, allowing us to draw inferences based on the details he presents. It’s all too easy to picture Ghostface, decked out in the wintertime bubble goose, copping his order at the fish spot on 125th. It’s here that the sensory overload begins, as he enters the cramped car, alternating between ketchup-soaked fries and hits from the bat.
Making moves back and forth uptown
60 dollars plus toll is the cab fee
Wintertime bubble goose, goose, clouds of smoke
Music blastin' and the Arab V blunted
Whip smelling like fish from 125th
Throwing ketchup on my fries, hitting baseball spliffs
Back seat with my leg all stiff
Push the fuckin' seat up, tartar sauce on my S Dot kicks
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RUM, FRIED PLANTAINS AND RICE, BIG ROUND ONIONS ON A T-BONE STEAK
From there, he sets the scene. There’s to be a robbery, staged by himself and his partner, Frank. The mark is a gang of Cuban drug dealers who have made the mistake of deeming Ghost to be an ally. Prior to engaging, Ghost issues a few rules to the getaway driver, doing so with his style of colorful linguistics. “Fuck them ni*gas on the block they shook, most of them won't look,” he offers. “They frontin', they no crooks they fuck up they own jux / Look out for Jackson 5-0 'cause they on foot.” Officially ready to go, Ghost takes one tartar-sauce-coated-Sean-Carter-Reebok step forward and the world of “Shakey Dog” opens up.
“See that lady with the shopping cart,” asks Ghost, as he enters the apartment complex. “She keep a shottie cocked in the hallway / 'Damn she look pretty old Ghost' / She works for Kevin, she about 77 / She paid her dues when she smoked his brother in law at his boss' wedding.” Though only a periphery player in the crime caper to come, Ghost’s writing injects this side character with plenty of development, from her weapon of choice to her cold-hearted backstory. As Ghost goes over some last-minute details with Frank, advising him to be wary of inadvertent children returning from school, the friction begins to reveal itself. “You is a crazy motherfucker, small Hoodie dude / Hilarious move, you on some Curly, Moe, Larry shit,” spits Ghost, recognizing that his partner may fly off the handle. “Straight parry shit, Krispy Kreme / Cocaine, dead bodies, jail time you goin' carry it.”
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It should be noted that the exchange between Ghost and Frank is the most difficult to unpack on a surface level. His use of non-sequitur and referential slang, paired with his unwillingness to distinguish the cadences of his characters, leave this section open to interpretation. Suffice it to say, there’s an urgency that makes sense given the high-stakes nature of the scenario, with Ghost’s wariness toward Frank’s behavior under pressure serving as a point of foreshadowing of the chaos to come.
As it stands, the plot is simple. Ghost, a player the Cuban connects trust, is to approach the door. Upon knocking, Frank will put his gun to Ghost’s head and force his way inside. From the sound of it, Ghost is familiar with their habits -- from their television choices to their tantalizing culinary ones. “These fuckin' maricons on the couch watchin' Sanford and Son, Passin' they rum, fried plantains and rice, big round onions on a T-bone steak,” he raps. “My stomach growling, yo I want some.” As the caper kicks into gear, Ghost and Frank find themselves directly in the thick of it, flipping the script on the unsuspecting Cubans the moment they step into the apartment. Even his stick-up trash-talk is incredible: “The door flew Told him ‘Freeze! Lay the fuck down and enjoy the moment.’”
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ON THE FLOOR LIKE “HOLY SHIT!”
Unfortunately, things go awry as one of the Cuban’s wives takes matters into her own hand, seizing the four-five magnum and retreating into the kitchen. Not only is Ghost’s depiction of the wildcard event vividly rendered, but the direction his tale takes in the first place should be applauded. “His wife stood up speakin' in Spanish, big tittie bitch holdin' the cannon,” he raps, still managing to sneak a peek in the thick of the chaos. “Ran in the kitchen, threw a shot / The kick in the four-fifth broke a bone in her wrist / And she dropped the heat, "Give up the coke!", but the bitch wouldn't listen / I'm on the floor like, "Holy shit!"
Despite Ghostface being relatively helpless in the midst of the shootout, Frank is more than capable of holding it down. As the wife drops her gun, Frank retaliates with a fatal shot. Enraged, the husband literally unleashes the hound, described so eloquently by our narrator as “Big Head Bruno.” It’s Ghost’s description that reinforces his mastery of gallows humor, once again written with brilliant detail. “He let the pitbull out, big head Bruno with the little shark's teeth chargin' / Foamin' out the mouth, I'm scared,” raps Ghost, his admission of fear making him all the more relatable. “Frank screamin', blowin' shots in the air / Missing' his target, off the Frigidaire, it grazed my ear.”
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It’s all too easy to imagine the macabre scene unfolding, a testament to Ghostface’s ability to paint tapestries with his words. Not only that, but it’s admirable to see him position himself in a vulnerable state, one that often stands in contrast with typical archetypes. It also imbues his story with heightened tension, as it’s unclear as to whether or not his plot armor will hold for the duration. Rappers are often depicted as unstoppable forces, but here, Ghost stands acutely aware of his own mortality. It makes for an altogether more enjoyable climax, as Ghost’s surprise at the events before him mirrors our own. Luckily, Frank is able to deal with the “bullshit pit,” and the pair manage to flee into the bathroom (“butt-first” as Ghost is clear to point out), though forced to do so in a hail of gunfire.
Despite Frank having proven clutch in the heat of the moment, he ultimately succumbs in the final minutes of the fray, killed by the last opponent standing. Though Ghost distinguishes these two assailants with the simple dichotomy of “skinny” and “big,” he does manage to slide in one final moment of brilliant description, calling on the latter’s “centipede stab wound.” Unfortunately, Frank’s run is cut decisively short and Ghost’s face is left unknown -- “to be continued,” he declares, setting the stage for a saga that would continue the following year with “Shakey Dog Starring Lolita" off The Big Doe Rehab.
Easily one of the most exciting hip-hop stories ever put to page,Ghostface Killah's "Shakey Dog" remains a must-listen for any fan interested in the art of storytelling. There's a reason why Ghostface is widely considered to be one of the best lyricists of all time, and verses like "Shakey Dog" reveal a master at the height of his craft. Look for the second installment of Hip-Hop's Best Verses, arriving next week.