Ghostface Killah


(Def Jam; 2006)

By Connor Morris | 3 February 2008

Everything is in a name. Two years and six letters have passed since Pretty Toney deepened the imaginary chasm between Wu dogmatists and underground monomaniacs, and things today are even more out of perspective. On one side, you’ve got the never-too-old-for-rap demographic still throwing out poker-faced adjectives like it’s riot season; each move gets a tag like “pivotal,” or “monumental,” or a huffed “career defining.” On the other hand, a fresh crop of hip-hop super-patriots is taking two steps back from flowery moon heralding, and one step toward tongue-in-cheek sneers. 2005 saw Sonic Youth fans flirting with a new squeeze in Clipse quotes and purple day-wear. The hip replacement of long-winded “lyricism” with quick-witted trap-rap puns wasn’t without its share of controversy. Devotees of the former were fast to point out the trend-hopping as insincere: “it’s cool to talk about crack these days.” Others went to a more suspect extreme, declaring that talking about crack might even be racist. Others went to an even more suspect extreme, declaring that not talking about crack might even be racist. Whatever it was, those of us who enjoyed it did so exorbitantly – rarely deterred though fully aware of the fact that it wasn’t here to stay.

The in-office bickering didn’t do the so-called connoisseurs of credible hip-hop any favors; there were bigger divisions at hand. Forget the generation gap for a second, this shit is still, unfortunately, geographical. While former QB heroes Mobb Deep sold their souls to a hole-riddled Devil, “Laffy Taffy” stumbled aimlessly up the charts. New York had sins to atone for, but its inhabitants couldn’t find a way past aged pretense and a stubborn sense of something to prove. Southern lords were reaping the benefits of writing the new freebase thesaurus, but what about the city that had been nationally marketing the stuff for years? Enough was enough. The situation was bleak. Something drastic had to be done. It was time to bring back the “Killah.” Forget commercial success, forget Def Jam, and forget Jay-Z. The once-masked murderer could simultaneously unite his once loyal Shaolin adherents and a flock of young disciplets with kilo talk that had been refining itself for ten years. It wouldn’t be believable as just “Ghostface,” especially considering we’re made to believe Dennis was the one knocking guys off before 36 Chambers put a golden eagle around his wrist. Now, iron fingers clenched around rap’s creative jugular, the once-masked murderer reemerges the autocrat, this time fully aware of his hefty stature and the pressure that goes hand in hand, and primed to take his sound to an array of venues, old and new.

Despite that mostly blog-built bathos (don’t look this way), Fishscale’s subject matter remains relatively light, and no, that isn’t a pun. Coles (yes he actually has a real name) introduces himself with the reintroduction of Clyde Smith, and then plunges headfirst into the jaw-dropping technical proficiency flourishing on the album’s first “real” number: “Shakey Dog.” Enigmatic consonance temporarily set aside, Ghost returns to his role as projects storyteller, detailing the exploits of a stick-up turned ugly, with stuttery legman-cum-canine executioner taking lead for his over-zealous trigger finger. He clocks himself in for three minutes of day-to-day door-hammering without a pause. The housebreak, set to a Dells sample flipped more famously for Mos Def or more recently by Edan, might be the most ferocious verbal storm you’ll weather this year, and serves as a near-flawless kickstart to an album littered with anecdotal treasures.

With “it” producer after “it” producer in the liners, standing out amongst the pack proves more difficult for some than others. Just Blaze laces the record’s best beat; adding new vigor to the “Mighty Healthy” drum loop while blaring out his signature prismatic horn chops. He’s recycling, but it’s hard to complain, and it isn’t like he’s the only one doing it (wheelchairs from pop cans, and all that good stuff). With no objections from either side, Ghostface finds himself flowing over a number of pieces previously available on MF Doom’s Special Herbs or the late Dilla’s Donuts. Such comfort with old material makes it almost shocking that Rza, the king of the retread, doesn’t have a single cut. Tony himself even takes another turn behind the boards, attempting to recreate the magic of “Holla” with “Big Girl” (sounding slightly like “China Girl”); the latest addition to Ghost’s soul-rap testament. He pleads with the female adolescence to be confident and intelligent, and advocates their right to an equal opportunity in the workforce. It could be a slight break in character or a sweeping contradiction, but I’m not going to hold it against him.

And because of the ball of maybe-contradictions that this guy presents, it is (you’ll say “thankfully”) impossible to write a concept review about a crunch & munch (running out of relevant slang, who calls cocaine “crunch & munch”?) theme from an MC becoming infamous for the ludicrous headgear he sports in videos. I mean, the title of the album is Fishscale, the finest of all of those quirky Columbian exports, so there’s going to be humor, right? We’re all aware that rappers are funny, it’s just that most of the time we’re not laughing at their keen observations. Let me put it this way: except for that one extreme close-up on the jeans and open toed sandals, no one who hadn’t read the rag story about that Cam’ron video would have known who Jimmie Walker was supposed to be portraying in that Cam’ron video. In fact, Jimmie Walker himself didn’t even know. But, then again, we are all reading about Cam’ron videos two weeks before they premiere. To contrast, Fishscale shows off Ghostface’s unparalleled ability to conjure laughter from his listeners, entirely intentionally. From “Big Girl”’s roxette inquiry (“I asked these young ladies do they buff helmets / they said “fuck you” took a sniff and then they didn’t tell me”), to “Beauty Jackson”’s bus-stop pickup gone astray (“her face fell when I dropped the chrome”), to “Whip you with a Strap”’s fond reminiscence of ill advised herbal curiosity and the subsequent repercussions (“mad welts / ragged out / bad belt, yes her presence was felt / then get my black ass in the bad it’s time to crash out / pass out / passed out” – this song is intentionally funny and heartfelt, most rappers can only do that when romanticizing marijuana). Perhaps lacking the lyrical intricacies of previous outings, Wu-Tang’s resident clown (remember, U-God isn’t doing it on purpose) has yet to lose his ability to entertain.

Then you hear a splash, and “Underwater” gets started. For just over two minutes, drugs and jokes take a backseat to the remarkably unique and perplexing MF Doom produced journey to the depths; a place where even light holds no home. Ghost gets back to his stream of conscious styling, interrupting himself as he endures the ambiguity of the post-humus, conspicuously beginning with passage through a pink door, and ending with a mass prayer attended only by history’s most enlightened figures. Compelled, he can’t find it in himself to put an end to his pilgrimage to the other side, carefully observing the mermaids, shipwrecks, and cartoon characters that pop up along the way (“Up ahead lies Noah’s Ark / but that’s waves away / you look right that’s one of our bangin’ spots / she quoted I took notice / Sponge Bob in the Bentley Coupe / bangin’ the Isley’s / he spoke, backed up then he passed me soup”). Mistral woodwinds and unearthly coos wrap themselves elegantly around the softened snare and bongo arrangement, acting as the perfect compliment and making for one of the boldest statements as to exactly how far above the competition Ghostface is when it comes to versatility. He can move from hard chords to oboes in a wink, something that’s easy to forget when his wildout rants are the songs that the bloggers focus on.

The remarkable thing, however, is that there’s no shortage of tracks pieced together as meticulously as “Underwater.” As mentioned, with a name like “Killah” it’s going to be hard to vie for radio play, so the only thing lacking is the desperately-friendly half-attempt at large-scale popularity (there are no songs named after “ass” on this album). It warms my soul to assume that he wants nothing to do with the “obvious” club banger form anyway. Aside from the pussyfoot lead single “Back Like That” (Ne-Yo outperforming Triumph the Comic Dog, on fully different subject matter) there’s little in the way of hooks or R&B sidekicks. The blatantly tagged on “Momma” and “Bricks” hold the unfortunate position of the album’s last two tracks, and stand as the only true missteps. The former being the second song featuring a Def Jam canary, the latter being the track Diddy deemed insufficient for the mockery of Biggie’s legacy otherwise known as Duets.

Because of the vastly differing experiences provided by each of his first four albums, everyone will look to put Fishscale in a category it probably doesn’t belong to. It isn’t the street rap of Ironman, it isn’t an exercise in abstract lyricism akin to Supreme Clientele, or the partially-focused and repeatedly disappointing Bulletproof Wallets. Regardless of that, the album captures exactly what Ghostface Killah is and has been over his past four records. Here’s the coke dealer, the Don Juan, the thug, the poet, the rhapsodist, and the business man that cares a little about getting his radio play, but not too much, secure with the fanbase that have grown to love all of his other personas. All this is scattered over these 24 tracks and, just like with Toney, it’s likely we’ll hear more of the mixtape cuts that couldn’t make it through sample clearance (the Caetano Veloso sampled “Charlie Brown” being the big fan favourite), their omission keeping the album short of opus-status. But for a 30-something rapper already regarded as being one of the world’s greatest, it’s stunning that the animated MC can still spit effectively over his hand-selected beats as strongly as he does on this record. If it takes ten more years for New York to reassert its importance, I won’t mind. There’s no reason to believe the Ironman won’t still be standing then, having lead the rush the whole way through.