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April 4, 2006

Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale slays the competition

On “Kilo,” from the brand new Fishscale, Ghostface Killah wants the aspiring coke dealers to know that “a kilo is a thousand grams—it’s easy to remember.” And if you can make enough money slingin’, then you’re gonna get the panties, too.

I think it’s pretty clear we’ve all missed Ghostface’s presence in the rap game.

With his latest release Fishscale, he’s come back with one of the most solid albums of any genre this year. It’s another gem of an album that continues the incredible Wu-Tang legacy while furthering his reputation as one of our generation’s best emcees. Some of the best producers in the game show up here to provide a sonic landscape that pushes Ghostface’s creativity as a lyricist while managing to sound completely natural under his unconventional flow.

“Shakey Dog,” the first proper track on the album, fits the mold of a classic Wu-Tang banger, with muffled horns and strings pounding in the background. The beat sounds filtered and restrained, which allows Ghostface to bring his lyrical assault to the foreground. Producer Just Blaze’s contribution to the album, “The Champ,” is a cocky statement that’s an extension of “Shakey Dog.” But while “Shakey Dog” is Ghostface’s head-nodding, attention-grabbing album opener, “The Champ” is his assertion that he’s still, simply put, the champ.

Blaze brings some tinny horns and constant crowd noise as the backdrop for the state-of-the-Ghostface address. He wants us to know that he’s not a big fan of some modern rap, like the Bay Area “hyphy” scene (“Revenge is my arts is crafty darts/ While y’all stuck on ‘Laffy Taffy’/ Wonderin’ how ya’ll niggas get past me/ I been doin’ this before Nas dropped the Nasty”). He wants us to know that he’s still got the lyrical audacity to take out anyone at anytime (“Niggas want me dead, but they scared to step to me/ Rip they guts out like a hysterectomy”). He wants us to know that he’s still balling, too (“Ten-four, good buddy, Tone got is money up/ Worth millions still back your bitch lookin’ bummy, what/ Y’all staring at the Angel of Death/ Liar liar pants on fire, you burning up like David Koresh”). As far as I’m concerned, if you can brag about your financial status and then use a metaphor with David Koresh as the punch line, you deserve the title of “The Champ.”

On Fishscale, Ghostface sounds fresh and vital again. His eccentric flow sounds, well, eccentric as ever, and his high-pitched voice comes out at a million miles per hour when he’s representin’ the Wu or calling someone out. But there’s a subtler characteristic of this album that gives it depth, warmth, and familiarity: sentimentality.

“Whip You with a Strap” is Ghostface’s misty-eyed look at the old days, when, as a child, he would get beaten by his mom. And his dad. And his neighbors. Despite the sad subject matter, Ghostface manages to give the song some endearing qualities. It’s not a call for universal parental abuse, but rather a look back at how his parents raised him and a subtle thank-you to them for keeping him (somewhat) in line. He’s critical of today’s kids and parents, as he raps, “Nowadays kids don’t get beat/ They get fresh treats/ Fresh pair of sneaks/ Punishment’s like ‘have a seat.’” The late J Dilla provides the sparse beat, with a siren blaring in the background as the sampled vocals declare, “She used to hit me with a strap when I was bad.”

MF Doom gives Ghostface four tracks on the album, including “9 Milli Bros.,” a Wu-Tang reunion that even includes the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard (or Big Baby Jesus, if you prefer). Despite only sporadic releases from the group as a unit, their cohesion shines on this track and actually makes up for an unusually sub-par effort from Doom. Despite Doom’s efforts on that track, he provides the music for two of the best tracks on the album, “Jellyfish” and “Underwater.”

“Jellyfish” is Ghostface’s call for love. His voice, laid over a simple Casio keyboard chord change, sounds sincere and earnest as he sings, “Right before she went to rest she had me singing this song: She must be a special lady and a very exciting girl.”

Upon hearing the first 10 seconds of “Underwater,” it’s clear how the song got its name. Doom provides a mind-fuck of samples that sound like a mushroom trip at the bottom of the ocean. There’s no chorus, no repeating lines—it’s just a murky, trippy view through Ghostface’s mind as he interacts with “some mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts flashin’ they tail.”

Fishscale is a mash-up of some of the best hip-hop producers of this generation, and arguably of all time (MF Doom, J Dilla, Just Blaze, and Pete Rock), with some unknowns providing extremely strong cuts as well (MoSS and Crack Val, among others). The beats on the album are often extensions of the Wu-Tang sound, with grimy snare drums, muffled horns, and strings throughout.

But by assembling these brilliant producers and pushing them to go beyond the standard, Ghostface appears to have opened up and, consequently, put out some of his best work since his Ironman debut. At 35, he’s become one of rap’s elder statesmen. But his age has done nothing to dampen his creativity. On Fishscale, he’s a thug, a lover, a poet, a coke dealer, a wise philosopher, and a hungry unknown all at once.