Ghostface Killah has a second career in television if he ever wants out of the rap game. His calling is in scripting episodes of potential future spin-off "CSI: I-95," chronicling the seedy East Coast drug dumps on that interstate. Let's just hope the Staten Island MC doesn't take it up anytime soon because Fishscale, his fifth solo full-length, shows him at the top of his game.
Fishscale, which refers to highest-grade uncut cocaine, reintroduces us to the equally undiluted Ghostface, the Wu-Tang Clan's fiery righteous thug. The hottest commodity on Fishscale isn't pure Colombian, but breath: Ghostface's flow is uninterrupted and irreproachably itemized.
Now in his mid-30s in a youth-obsessed industry, Ghostface has maintained a long run without running on empty, and that is because at his strongest, he hooks without a hook. Each album has its one seeming airplay attempt -- Fishscale's wounded warrior tale being "Back Like That" featuring Ne-Yo -- but those cuts are the minority. Examples of Ghostface's long-form style spectrum bookend the album: The insistent "Shakey Dog" conveys the shutterbuggin' authenticity of an anxious heist, while the MF Doom-constructed special herb instrumental "Underwater" floats surrealistic, stormy free association. As previously highlighted on 2000's aptly titled Supreme Clientele and 2004's less impressive The Pretty Toney Album, a Ghostface album can require a recorder set to slo-mo or a decoder ring, or at the least, multiple listens.
But this is appropriate for a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, whose Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) -- released a lucky 13 years ago -- introduced nuanced mythology to hip-hop. Ghostface -- aka Tony Starks, aka Ironman -- draws from comic books to kung-fu movies not because they are escapist fantasies but because they are threaded through the reality of a man whose most emotional work remains grounded in portraying candid details of childhood times both formidable and formative. Tracks such as "All That I Got Is You" or "Whip You with a Strap" reinforce the old adage you can't tell where you're going unless you know where you've been. No matter if talking about belt welts or popping off shots, Ghostface never denies that actions breed reactions.
Fishscale's highly prevalent activity, of course, is one that can carry as much jail time as profit, and that is, again, dealing coke. Over the past decade, a focus on the coke trade -- and the accompanying lucrative hip-hop trade of pushing words and singles built around street tales -- has migrated further and further south. The pusher crown first passed through Virginia where Clipse found pleasure slangin' cane, then to Atlanta, where T.I. and Young Jeezy made good money. But that trap music revels in the perks of the trade, while Ghostface documents the downs with paranoid songs such as the infectious "Kilo," arrested "R.A.G.U." featuring Raekwon, and squalling "Clipse of Doom." We hear of the details, not the dividends, and without excessive boasting, Ghostface reclaims his corner of the game of shifting units -- even if in terms of CD units he'll inevitably sell less than any pretenders to the throne.
All these swaggering narratives wouldn't work, of course, if it weren't for the dusky, scuffed beats laid down for Ghostface to commandeer. Listening to Fishscale, you might find yourself fidgeting with your nose like you'd done a rail because the soul samples used throughout the album crackle with so much must you can almost feel the dust. Producers including Lewis Parker, MoSS, J Dilla, Pete Rock, Studio Beatz and Just Blaze lay the addictive beats, flipping the kind of samples -- the Dells, Stylistics, Willie Hutch, the Manhattans -- that would find themselves equally welcome in the living room of Lil' Ghostface's memories as Jeeps and Jaguars circa now.
Fishscale is straight dope from the Wu-Tang member most critically acclaimed for dedication to the lyrical discipline. Still, don't be surprised if "CSI" calls. The way Ghostface can lay down evidence of his lyrical prowess, he'd be a crime-drama natural.
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