April 27, 2006

Ghostface Killah's Fishscale

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Wu-Tang had at least two geniuses in it. That’s one more than most seminal groups can ever admit to. Some would point to the Clan’s high numbers of membership and say that the percentages were tipped in their favor against a group of three or four. To that I would say that, pshaw, Lynnard Skynnrd has had about 4,000 rotating group members, and they still post a whopping zero in the brilliance department. Perhaps that’s why all of underground rap is still trying to find its way out of the 36 Chambers. One, for sure, was Rza, who is without a doubt the most influential producer in hip-hop over the past 15 years, and whose left-field, dusty, b-movie beats did to hip-hop expectations what Ja-Rule did to his career by feuding with 50 Cent. Contrary to ignorant belief, the second genius is not the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard or Method Man. There may have been no father to his style, but Dirty’s post-Wu career, or lack thereof, should speak to his reliance on the group dynamic for his effect. And Meth, well, he just sells deodorant and scores sweet cameos on Limp Bizkit albums. No, that other genius is one of the group’s more mercurial members, and the one who has had, outside of RZA, the most artistic success: Ghostface Killah.

Perhaps Ghostface’s success owes to the fact that, in his best moments, he always had RZA at his side, laying down rhythms as solid as concrete while Ghostface floated somewhere above like an angel on PCP. There was a theory (well, okay, RZA had a theory) that only RZA’s beats could provide the necessary backing to Ghostface’s utterly cerebral stream of non-sequiturs and psychotic eruptions. How funny, then, that at the moment of their parting, Ghostface would sound all the more precocious, energized and vital.

Somewhere early on during Fishscale, the gruffy voice of a boxing trainer aping Mickey Goldmill intones “You ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele!” and in a way it’s true – I don’t think there is any such thing as a mediocre Ghostface album, but by The Pretty Toney Album he had certainly found a comfort pocket. Such cheeky self-deprecation is more than just mere skit fodder, though, and Ghostface seems to have internalized a fear of his own reticence. As a result, he comes out throwing verbal haymakers on nearly every track, and Fishscale should be more than enough to knock hip-hop on its ass, at least until the next Ghostface album drops. Hell, by track four he’s already declared himself “The Champ,” so we should expect that the fight between Fishscale and the rest of the medium will be brief and brutal.

Pulling on a host of producers as diverse as Just Blaze, Pete Rock and the late J Dilla, Fishscale lets loose an absolute carnival of sounds, treating decades like hop-scotch squares and pounding its pump-action high tops between them as fast as it can. No rapper sounds more eloquent over entirely esoteric seventies samples, and Ghostface’s production crew matches him step for step. “Kilo” sounds like it was pulled off the editing room floor of Sweet, Sweet Back, mashing stoned funk and Blaxploitation stomp while Ghostface and fellow Wu member Raekwon enumerate on the nuances of the crack game. If Sly Stone had been born 30 years later, this is what he would sound like. On the aforementioned “The Champ,” Ghostface demands that all five boroughs “stand up” and then proceeds to send millions flying prostrate in every direction with an absolutely pulsating beat of throbbing horns and bawdy guitars. There hasn’t been a hip-hop song so deliriously exciting since “Hey Ya!” and if there is any true knockout punch on the album, this is certainly it. I’m not sure what exactly happens on the track, mostly because every time it plays I feel like I either want to dance or perish in a high-speed chase. But at some point, Ghostface creates a rhyming couplet that ends with the word “hysterectomy,” and I think that alone should nominate this for song of the year. “9 Mili Bros.” brings back the whole Wu-Tang family, and matches every bit of “The Champ’s” exuberance.

Ghostface’s true genius lies in his ability to make the utterly insane and nonsensical sound positively profound. A look at a lyrics sheet for this or any Ghostface album will bear more resemblance to the diary of a dementia patient than anything else. Ghostface drops obscure cultural references like he’s T.S. Elliot, and then sucks any causal logic out of his lines by throwing words together that just don’t belong. Declaring his brand of rap as “architect music,” Ghostface makes note of “gorilla medallions” and points out that a friend’s shoe has a “big Frankenstein hole” before having run-ins with Spongebob and enduring religious epiphany. He may be the only person on earth who can get away with this kind of stuff, and Ghostface absolutely revels in his lyrical freedom. This kind of architecture may not pass at Rand, but there’s not doubt that it will stand for years to come.

Maybe five years ago, Fishscale would not have seemed so vital, but the sad fact is that the rap world needs an album like this more than ever, and its delirious movements should be enough to satisfy any fans palette for the time being. For an album that could have easily faded into the halcyon past, Fishscale is decidedly forward-looking, and in a genre that continually digs itself into its own hole, Ghostface remains absolutely essential.

Archived article by Zach Jones