(Def Jam; 2006)
By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007
“Ghost is back!” trumpets the spastic, kick-heavy Rakim-biting first track, but, I mean, really, what the fuck. Don’t call it a comeback when dude never left. Fishscale (2006) still sits in recent memory, seemingly placed with universal reverence at the token number six spot on critics’ (read: our) year-end lists. “Ghost is back!” skitters through, chopped and wiry over the clattering drums, insistent bass line and a handful of sounds wrenched out the kitchen sink; Ghost is back, with another album titled pretty much the same as the last one, his name not bejeweled or renewed but appearing like it did on the last cover; back, never having really left, but, you know, back, apparently. The audacious fuck wants to know if we missed him.
Well, we couldn’t, but thank Fishscale‘s surprisingly deft afterlife for that. Having spun the disc out within a month of its release, a year-end listen re-awoke the obvious in at least this critic: it was a Ghostface record, which doesn’t necessitate lip service or token praise but stands as a testament to all that is raw and beautiful in rap. Is there another genre that allows a personality like Ghostface’s to shine in semi-popularity for over a decade? Here is a bizarro artist who refuses to fade into irrelevance by painting whatever’s then-hot with the same fucked-up palette, using oddball touchstones and grotesque miniatures, the lyrical equivalent of a Ren & Stimpy close-up of boogers. Let’s call 2006 the year trap-hop broke. It wasn’t really, but trap-hop was then-hot, and Fishscale was Ghost’s interpretation of hip hop’s current phase, oozing ineffable Ghostfaceness. And while at first Ghost’s take on Jeezy alone seemed novel, it eventually became shallow, and then eventually the shallowness of the cash-in faded and what remained was pure unhinged Ghostfaceness. It was a Ghostface record after all, and we all know that’s something it takes a solid nine months to taste, let alone digest.
But do we need more Fish? Aren’t we still chewing the last portion? This record, despite its name, doesn’t even attempt to answer these questions. These tracks don’t nod toward Ghost’s other 2006 release in any way, and while More Fish is probably the worst record released bearing Dennis Cole’s solo nom de plume, it’s also as vital a listen as any in his catalogue, “worst” being a ruthlessly relative term in his case. What this “worst” record represents is the successful culmination of a few thwarted, often overlooked strands in the rapper’s career; if it’s the worst, it’s only because it doesn’t wildly redefine what a Ghostface record is. It doesn’t challenge our notion of Ghostfaceness. It’s at once the albums he and Trife attempted with Put it on the Line (2005) and Theodore Unit did with 718 (2004), realigning Ghostface with a new posse, one less sibilantly forward-thinking than the Wu, but, at least now, one that sounds at surprising ease rapping with its clear superior. It’s the posse album the Iron Man has always wanted to make. It imposes the wildly fresh, loose Pretty Toney (2004) aesthetic over some of the production flourishes of Fishscale, and in the meantime nets the rapper his most consistently soulful bed of samples — that heart-felt shit that he big-ups constantly but generally finds dulled by populist gloss — since Ironman (1995).
This is why something like “Good,” all endless enthusiasm and sputtering clicks, works so well: it’s that soulful shit first, bubbling over with the type of joy that matches the pained emoting in Ghost’s voice, but it also pulls Trife da God up after two stellar Ghost verses for some eight-bar hotness. It’s the best Trife’s ever sounded (at least until “Josephine,” five tracks later), and this is intentional, one of More Fish‘s trickiest triumphs. Ghostface realized long ago the evergreen nature of his popularity, and has since spent whole albums trying to bring his posse up with him. It’s been arduous going, watching him do backflips around his friends over muddy in-house production. But More Fish, perhaps because it’s ostensibly a “solo” album, catches standby Trife and Ghost’s 17-year-old son (!!!), Sun God, a prominently placed banger in “Miguel Sanchez,” circular storytelling over a faded horn blast and steady drums that push upward into quick climaxes. And, yeah, Sun God’s pretty good, but coming after the fuck-everything rip-roarer “Ghost is Back” and over “Miguel” ‘s baleful beat, the kid sounds like the future.
He probably isn’t, though, which, again, is the point. “Josephine” might boast the best beat on the record, and with that genuine soulful shit coming courtesy of the Willie Cotrell Band — then flipped and subdued by Hi-Tek — Ghostface exercises his peerless storytelling skills. The emceeing structure builds off Ghost’s Ghostfaceness; he paints this time-worn rap sob story (good girl’s drug-fueled descent into prostitution, hip hop’s bowl of oranges) with alien reference points and diamond-rare color: “I know this chick from the hood named Courtney Cox (sp) / And her brain is easy to pick like faulty locks / She’s awfully hot / Asshole burning like Tabasco / She used to be thick, it’s like / ‘Where the hell the ass go?’” He goes on, but with such doleful eccentricity used to set the stage, all Trife has to do is keep telling the story in the second verse so Ghost can deliver the moral in the third.
Thus is the template that makes More Fish so relevant, rewarding, and unpredictably necessary: uniformly fantastic production (except Doom) and Ghost coasting just enough that he doesn’t utterly eclipse the people he’s trying to let shine. Fishscale boasted a thematic cohesion never seen before in a Ghostface record, but More Fish bypasses hooey like “theme” entirely. If anything, the looseness and heavy punchlining give the record the feel that, like Pretty Toney‘s striking pimp reinvention, this is just the shit that Ghostface likes to listen to, and these guests are just the dudes he likes to kick stories to. Perhaps the record’s greatest similarity to its predecessor is the inclusion of two god-awful, delete-from-your-hard-drive embarrassing tracks at the end, the maudlin “Gotta Hold On” and the unnecessary-except-for-Kanye “Back Like That” “remix.” But, I mean, come on, that puts Dennis Coles’ 2006 record 37-4, better still if you count the rare, worthwhile Live in New York disc that made the rounds in September. Just Blaze called it on his album-defining beat for Fishscale: Ghost’s the champ.