he title stays in his imagination.
No matter what scenes rise up, he reaches down through the backpacker’s heart, through the gangster’s eyes, and crushes it. In a perfect world he’s not just your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, he’s the immoveable object of the fully realized gangster: human, funny, loose, seething, creative, and confident/anxious at all the same time.
After all the men who departed the dear old Big Apple, Ghostface isn’t just the last one standing, but with Fishscale, he’s crystallized and compressed the NYC mob aesthetic and contained and forged his own colors into the best document of his wild inner space since Supreme Clientele.
Expansive like that album, and similarly blurred with endless, often fractured takes on the archetypical black organized crime boss, Fishscale intermingles skewed narratives, expert guest choices, exquisitely conflicting production (Cool & Dre and J Dilla on the same disc?), and a concept and focus—the drug trade is the near exclusive subject mater (e.g. the title, half the track title’s are implicit metaphors and slang)—that, while somewhat reductive in scope, sharpens the album into an immense (over 20 tracks long), furious, and focused album.
Brief History: Wu-Tang fell into disarray right around ‘Face’s debut in ’96, and like any other shard of a broken nation, Ghostface could either adapt or die in the aftermath. He took the weak, brackish gangster poses from his early verses out and put in Iceberg Slim, Crane style, and angst-y, loud Philly soul. Four years later, 2000, he emerges with Clientele, the album of soul-thug fusion that made people love the fact that, at his most basic, Ghostface was putting words and phrases together in a way that didn’t just play with language, but archetype and tone. On all his albums, clauses run together, rhymes get tossed on a slant and cinematic crime, “Last scene: Manhattan Chase / We drew the six-eight digit in the briefcase / Rawness, title is Hell-bound,” presses up against infantilizing drug trips, “The Smurfs fell out laughin' / Heckle toe Jeckle at min / They took my Medicaid card / He's a good friend.”
Fishscale does have Ghostface occasionally in surreal mode, but more often it’s intense, older, and seething. He pouts, he growls, he cries, he questions wide-eyed, he’s a beer snob (“Get the fuck out, drinking that Budweiser!”), he loses control and starts name checking Dynasty and rhyming it with Meineke before a girl cusses him out and leaves him.
“Shakey Dog,” produced by relative unknown Lewis Parker, opens the album and trots out Ghostface over calm, metronome wood block smacks and, what else, a blasting soul sample of indeterminate origin. An easy lyric spoken in praise of the addict’s return to the dealer, it’s not hard to see the song as a subversive wink to his fans.
Let’s be real, for those who are off the Shaolin Kool-Aid (and I’ve been known to tip a view jugs in my day), there’s Ghostface’s product and everyone else’s. So in Ghost’s voice, crack heads and rap heads are both clients: “Why you behind me leering? / Shakey dog stuttering, like you got the cook on you.”
Fishscale is the portrait of our mob boss and his friends, lovers, mothers, and children who chop up the album’s narrative, strong-arming him into childhood nostalgia (“Whip You With A Strap”) and tribal affiliations (“9 Milli Brothers” manages to hold seemingly the whole of Wu-Tang and MF Doom’s sizzling whistles and dusty piano).
But yet he got so many personal songs off his chest on Pretty Toney that business always rules his mind. Some of the inner turmoil pricks him (“Back Like That” is a strong, instant entry to his broken hearted Mafioso oeuvre), but mostly he’s too busy bundling up “Kilos” and “R.A.G.U.” with Raekwon to give a shit. The songs of memory are merely gusts of diversion in a moving underworld. He’s our Tony, but he’s a professional. His family and life is the business. Between clanging bells and more Motown yelps he’s our man moving units while investigating the night sky.
Isolating what exactly Ghostface does as an artist is like trying to cup the proverbial water. But I can say this: Fishscale is Ghostface being Ghostface for Ghostface’s sake. No more worries about money or XXL covers (“The Champ”). No RZA tracks. Image built upon other images. Telling us his dreams:
I’m lost underwater, I see pink door with a crystal handleLike I said, the title stays in his imagination.
So I keep swimming, amazed that I’m not drowning.
Butterflies took control when I arrived,
Opened the door...no…I knocked first.
I’m not on my turf, I see a ray of light
That resemble live fireworks…