Ghostface Killah – Fishscale

Ghostface Killah

Yeah, we know – mainstream hip-hop has no conscience, while indie rap suffers from an abundance thereof. For every 50 Cent riffing half-baked lines about inconsequential, materialist who-cares-what, there’s a Sage Francis, absolutely gushing his own feelings over intentionally challenging beats. Whatever.

So it’s fitting that Ghostface Killah – a rapper permanently enshrined in hip-hop Valhalla for his role in Wu-Tang Clan but who never seemed to feel quite at home in the company of his less-innovative peers in the mainstream – hops schizophrenically over the fence and back again. Part drug-dealer bravado, part compulsive self-deprecating humorist, Ghost practically pulses with a crushing conflict between pride and self-doubt.

It is perhaps important to understand Ghostface, if only to see what can happen to an obviously intelligent person who grew up in the vice grip of the urban drug trade and the violence that necessarily accompanies it. Here is somebody who glorifies this way of life and reviles its devastating consequences in the same breath – and who doesn’t come off as insincere at either extreme.

For the first side, check out “Kilo,” a riotously funny and charmingly ridiculous song about – what else? – dealing coke. A heavily synthesized woman’s voice chimes over the beat for the hook, perhaps something like the siren that leads Ghost, a man who knows better, back to the drug world: “All around the world today, the kilo is the measure / a kilo is one thousand grams, easy to remember,” she sings. The line’s genius (and hilarity) lies in its disarming simplicity and its subtle humor. Ghostface chimes in with his characteristic slur, elevating the song to a divinely ridiculous plane.

“The Champ” follows, featuring a Rocky-themed challenge (“He’s hungry! / you ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele!”) placed on top of a riotous Just Blaze horn-led party beat. Ghost is at his best, skipping deftly among the horns and drums and beating his chest over the sounds of the audience applauding. “9 Milli Bros” features a litany of guest MCs and sounds a bit like a ghetto Jurassic 5. “Back Like That” is an instant classic, featuring a preposterously vulgar tough-guy hook and an alternately vicious and wounded Ghost.

“R.A.G.U.” paints a startlingly honest picture of a drug dealer. Instead of glorifying the practice, Raekwon and Ghost painfully exhume some of its various tragedies, including broken bones and a bullet put unfortunately between a dude’s legs. “Be Easy” takes a brief break from the existential agitation, instead offering a mindless (but nonetheless clever) club banger. “Big Girl” returns to the theme, admonishing three women to lay off cocaine and make something of themselves. Tragically, it’s Ghost’s own cocaine that has them addicted.

The album is remarkably consistent thanks to Ghost’s eclectic brilliance and the quality production. Speaking of which, Fishscale is the first solo Ghostface album not produced by the RZA, but with spotless production by Pete Rock, Just Blaze, and MF Doom, the change is hardly noticeable. More importantly, Ghost is at the top of his game, both in terms of flow and lyrical luminosity. Fans of both indie and mainstream hip-hop will take to Ghost instantly – if they haven’t discovered him already – and even the most demanding music fan will find a satisfactory emotional range and a healthy number of surprises that will keep him coming back for a long time. Ghostface Killah is too rare a talent to be overlooked, especially when he’s at his best.