Hip-hop has reached the dubious plateau where a mediocre Houston rapper named Mike Jones can score enough cheddar for platinum teeth and titanium rims just by bellowing his name a few dozen times. That’s why the return of a real MC — one who can work “amoxicillin,” “spiced-out Calvin Coolidge” and “supercalafragalisticexpialadocious” into his left-field verses — feels uplifting.
Ghostface Killah, founding Wu-Tang Clan element and one of its few still-relevant MCs, has been as prolific as his fiery tracks have been absent from radio waves. Ghostface cut five albums in the past decade, as well as records by his side project Theodore Unit, protégé Trife, several mix-tapes and appearances on tracks by Wu-brethren and valued rappers from Mos Def to Jadakiss. Defending his belt as an ingenious underground anomaly, Ghostface is the only rapper brave enough to actually cry on wax while keeping screw-faced enough to deliver tough-guy lines like “Send me to Iraq, I come back with don heat .?.?. keep with the fists, I sure do cook when it’s beef” (“Biscuits,” off ’04’s The Pretty Toney Album).
But it’s his new release, Fishscale (slang for high-grade cocaine), that’s put the spotlight back on perhaps Wu-Tang Clan’s most enigmatic member. Hoodied up like a million-dollar stick-up kid — with a purple Smurf cap perched at an impossible angle and three gargantuan gold chains dripping down a striped tee — Ghostface smacked the House of Blues on March 27, the evening Fishscale would hit shelves at midnight. Spitting classics without pause, the keg-chested Killah ripped through lines from GZA’s obscure “4th Chamber,” and jammed to landmarks from his early and most acclaimed records, 1996’s Ironman and 2000’s Supreme Clientele.
Fishscale is yet another attempt to properly showcase his inimitable verbal style: an emotional, high-pitched petition documenting street life and hood love through cryptic metaphors, Staten Island projects slang and roughneck storytelling. It is also a shot at recapturing the ducats and respect Ghost built up on his flawless early releases, but which flagged after 2001’s soft Bulletproof Wallets.
The frenzied discipline of his staccato cadence and plaintive pleas held the raised-fist crowd at the House of Blues teetering on ecstatic explosion. A lover as much as a killah, Ghost packed the stage with girls from the audience but strangely all but ignored material from his new album. Admittedly, his live energy held us rapt in a way the new CD attempts but falls ever so slightly short of matching.
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Pressing play on Fishscale launches a breakneck journey across the Verrazano Bridge, over the Hudson, Ghostface driving with a lead foot. Killah hits the streets hard, churning up cocaine blues and gunblast-echoing cityscapes with furious lyrical style. The album’s first half bum-rushes the heavy expectations placed on Ghostface’s sophomore output for Def Jam, under the new Jay-Z presidency. Die-hard fans buy almost anything sporting a yellow W, but the family-affair dirty funk of “Dogs of War” and the flute-laced “Underwater” should be astonishing enough to woo young ears from the unimaginative flows of the latest Young Jeezy. (In “Underwater,” for example, Ghost finds spiritual communion with scriptural scholars, as well as “some mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts” and “Spongebob in the Bentley coup, bangin’ the Isleys . . .”)
Outsourcing beats to underground turntablists like MF Doom, Pete Rock and Just Blaze counters the convention of endless loops. “The Champ” squeals guitar solos, and the drums on “R.A.G.U.” skitter on a unique upbeat, leaving heads scratched as hard as they are bumped. “Whip You With a Strap,” produced by the late Jay Dilla, surfaces with the haunting tones of the ’72 Luther Ingram cut “To the Other Man,” as Ghost details beatings he thankfully took as a bad boy. These distinctive beats serve as calm in Ghostface’s frantic storm of vulnerable honesty.
The Alchemist once marveled at how Ghost and his partner, Raekwon, could flow over anything thrown their way. Just as Ghost spat entire verses live at HOB while the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” and Dawn Penn’s reggae standard “You Don’t Love Me” blared in their entirety, the esteemed duo team up on Fishscale for numerous joints, tossing verbal darts at a nonstop clip on “Kilo” and “3 Bricks” (the latter featuring vocals sampled from the greatest crime story ever told, Biggie’s “Niggaz Bleed”). “Big Girl” superbly re-creates these kinds of dubplate antics over the Stylistics’ ’71 track “You’re a Big Girl Now.” Elsewhere, the reportedly fractious Clan appears sharply together on “9 Milli Bros.,” its mysterious, chorusless atmosphere serving as a homecoming to avant-garde form.
Still, lacking the blazing consistency found on Ghostface Killah’s original outputs, Fishscale fails to bring Ghost wholly back to rank or the airwaves. As passionately and relentlessly as Ghostface might rap, mainstream-pop attempts such as “Back Like That” and “Momma” sound forced and even a bit disingenuous. As always, this star still shines brightest at his most bizarre.