Review Summary: Wanna know how those wonderful drugs get from the gnarled hands of impoverished South Americans to your nose? Well Ghostface Killah "educates" you with a brilliantly crafted album of blazing rhymes, neurotic story-telling and gritty beats
Repetition be a cruel, cruel mistress. Any artist can say that. Hell, anybody here can say that. I can say that. My past three sentences can say that. For example, I’ve made myself realize that though I might think I’m a clever writer (and those of you comment “great review” to me are just as guilty too…fuc
kers) but I’ve noticed that much of my reviewing is a one-trick pony that just seems “out there”. Kinda like the Mars Volta. In fact all of my reviews follow a similar pattern in writing and technique: start out with some anecdote that’s either completely unrelated to the album I’m reviewing and than proceed to waste 3 paragraph’s worth of the reader’s time by complaining about it in great detail. Then “cleverly” connect it to the said album and then employ its supposed “sociological” or “political” significance as a cheap justification for why the album is actually good all the while making myself feel smarter. Usually my writing itself is hopelessly dependent of flowery, long-winded descriptions of stuff I’m wishing to describe (like this), wordy alliterations (not like this) and a HEAVY emphasis on brackets and long sentences broken up into commas (once again, like this).
I also tend to assume a bitter tongue-in-cheek tone towards counter-culture and hipster mannerisms as a way to convince myself that those Manu Chao-lovin’, holier-than-thou indie kids in high school were not right when they told me that “Incubus was gay”. I love to employ gratuitous amounts of profanity, make cheap stereotypes about certain people or genres that I don’t understand, and subsequently refuse to understand. Finally, I like using quotes from certain pieces of literature to show off how well read I am.
And so far, this review isn’t looking to promising either. (and godammit, I also like using one sentences paragraphs for emphasis.)
But, hold on, let me try and redeem myself and go back to my first statement here. Repetition sucks. Mind you, I guess I’ve explained that enough. The point is, that repetition is particularly a rampant disease in commercial hip-hop these days. Rappers periodically “droppin” albums every couple of months that contain around 22 tracks and exactly one decent single surrounded by interludes, skits and filler has been the norm ever since Diddy realized he could save money on production costs by reusing the same beats and samples every couple of years without people noticing. But, then again, if hip-hop can paradoxically be praised for anything, it would be its seemingly limitless potential for progression and reinvention, and there are still a handful of rappers who not only understand that, but also understand that it can certainly shape the market as well. Ghostface Killah is one of those rappers.
The man known as Dennis Coles should know enough about change judging simply by the plethora of names he’s donned in the years as a member of the infamous Wu-Tang Clan: Ghostface, Ghost Deini, Ironman, Pretty Toney, Tony Starks, Wally Champ, Clyde Smith…the list goes on. But more important that alias, GK’s progression as a rapper is highly derivative “Outkast Syndrome”: moderately successful rap artist from early/mid-90s starts to get “creative” and suddenly finds themselves in a constant battle to try and best their last album, which then happens, and then they have to top that album and so on. His solo album debut, 1996’s Ironman
was regarded as one of the strongest solo Wu-related releases next to GZA’s Liquid Swords
and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
(which he also featured prominently on). Unfortunately, it only went up from there. 2000’s Supreme Clientele
once again blew away critics and music listeners alike as Ghostface expanded on his spastic, stream-of-conscious rapping that was riddled with anecdotes, metaphors, and a high degree of melismatic vocal deliveries. Then just as the spectre of the Wu had begun to sputter out, 2004’s The Pretty Toney Album
reinvigorated Ghostface’s place as a brilliant rapper and appeared on the majority of “Best of” lists by the end of the year.
And now there’s Fishscale
, and though its only been out for a couple of months at the time of writing, it has—like every other album Coles released—has been pegged as his best work to date. However, these praises are certainly warranted. On Fishscale
, Ghostface Killah achieves the perfect blend of manic indecipherable rapping filled to brim with deep figurative language, brilliantly-crafted stories of streetlife and hustling, and out-of-this-world scenarios that extend from the deepest cracks of human consciousness. All of this is displayed over some of the most consistent arsenal of fiery beats and samples that interestingly enough are delivered by a diverse array of producers and styles. Where the bulk of Ghostface’s previous releases were handled by unofficial Wu-CEO The RZA, Fishscale
successfully employs the best of local New York producers and underground-but-well-known-enough names. MF Doom, Just Blaze, Pete Rock and the late J Dilla are featured prominently among the tracks, as well as The RZA (on one track).
And once again, by “consistent” the album is successful in largely being underpinned by the single thematic plotline of the grimy world of drug dealing overbearing the majority of Ghostface’s raps, however scenarios of everything from failed relationships to child abuse to bad haircuts weave itself in and out of the hellish scenes depicted as the album plays out. But all in all, Ghostface makes it clear that its not C.RE.A.M., but D.R.E.A.M.: Drugs Rule (and hence the title of the album).
Just listening to the opening track, Shakey Dog
can one understand the vicious amalgamation of styles introduced here. The dizzying sonic template of brassy horn shots, old school James Brown-style basslines and gritty head-bobbing drum beats evokes the greasiest images of the darkest corners of New York City and the even greasier “transactions” that occur within it as Ghostface delivers a straight 3 and a half minute narrative of a botched robbery attempt. Every detail, significant or insignificant, from Ghostface dumping ketchup over his fries before the action fires up, to the target’s elderly neighbour is mentioned with neurotic accuracy all while being fueled by a ridiculously smooth and aggressive flow. Hell, I wish I could cite a few of these lyrics to illustrate the brilliance of story-telling involved but it would only be comprehensible if I posted the song in its entirety. Definitely a dynamic start to the album and a track that has to be heard in full to enjoy. Kilo
meanwhile, is a brilliant throwback to 1970s-style blaxploitation funk grooves that shamelessly glamorize running narcotics with Kingpin-like dignity. Partner-in-crime Raekwon delivers an extra dose of gangster-like charisma in one of his first of several guest raps on the album as well.
is an adrenaline-soaked track of battle-rhyme braggadocio that stimulates the raw ringside aggression of Rocky
. Anchored down with some pimp-as-fuc
k horns, manic distorted guitar licks and a jaw-rattling beat, Ghostface delivers a mesmerizing barrage of rhymes heavy on internal rhyming and vague allusions:
Niggaz want me dead but they scared to step to me
Rip they guts out like a hysterectomy
When beef collide look on the flip by the penitentiary kite
Or get you bumped off from the inside
Jaws is hanging
Frauds is left in they draws, on the floor complaining
Bird ass nigga resemble Keenon Ivory Wayans
Stay in your place dirt born rappers get Shadow box for training ?
Ya'll still eatin bacon
The hard-posturing continues on Crack Spot
that incorporates a gorgeous disco/soul string sample of the late 1970s that probably sounds even better on coke. Ghostface meanwhile wins serious points for probably being able to regale the listener he’s describing cooking up a batch of crack so strong that his guinea pig passes out and smashes his face on the coffee table, causing blood to spurt everywhere. R.A.G.U.
meanwhile with its blend of ghostly violins and punchy snare beats instills the most deranged illusions of drug-addled paranoia on a rainy night in the city streets.
And though gangsta-fronting is fun, Ghostface has no problem that some of the tracks to heart as the album approaches the middle. The J Dilla-produced Whip You With a Strap
is beautifully constructed minimalist number that conveys the darkest feeling of child abuse as Ghostface disrupts his flow with sporadic emotional posturing and repressed anecdotes of his own childhood. The spooky vocal hook and sparse beat perfectly embodies the hollow moods described in the lyrics. In this sense it is the perfect set-up to the next track, the unabashedly poppy Back Like That
featuring Ne-Yo in which the fallout of loveless relationships based on material values is made the theme. The twinkling piano melody, subtle chime rushes, and light fingersnaps provide a ridiculously catchy neo-soul hook, exemplified by Ne-Yo’s sugary vocals that satisfies like a monster-size bowl of Count Chocula during a strong bout of the munchies. From this the obvious club track Be Easy
leaves an even greater impact for its heady blend of melody, fat beats and more crunchy battle rhymes.
progresses deeper and deeper into the Ghostface’s conscious, it begins to get weirder. Thankfully MF Doom’s production credits are present to make it as bizarre as possible. Clipse of Doom
incorporates Ghostface’s paranoia with a buzzing distortion sample comparable to when the perma-fried guitarist at your local jazz forgets to unplug himself at the end of his set. Ghostface also takes advantage of the tin-foil hat anxiety by taking on his embittered political perspectives:
Dogs of War
Blake Carrington holding the Dynasty
I muffle motherfuckers up like meineke
and write a thousand bar verse that all rhymes with "eat"
Jewel theif, Shizzam bangles, in the vault deep
And cruisin desserts mad heavy into salt treats
Im the taste in Bush's mouth, nasty
Afghanistan missions, gun training in the grassy fatigues
Picking niggaz off by the Red Sea
And did it all for Ghost, sniffin on caffeine
meanwhile is an exercise heavily rhythmic guitar-driven funk aided by sporadic percussion samples and obtuse vocals. Featuring Raekwon and members of Theodore Unit, the revolving-door outburst of verses by different rappers marks a brilliantly concise example of hip-hop Russian roulette. Underwater
, another MF Doom-produced track, is probably one of Ghostface’s most bizarre outputs as it borders on the surreal. With hollow vocal samples and a sinister-sounding flute loop the track presents itself as simply eerie. Ghost’s hallucinatory stream-of-conscious lyrics is a dense array of strong imagery of mermaids, pop-culture references, bizarre scenery and Islamic verses:
I seen rubies, diamonds, smothered under octopus
Jellyfish sharks soar, aquaproof pocketbook
Pearls on the mermaid girls
Gucci belts that they rock for no reason from a different world
Up ahead lies Noah's Ark, but that's waves away
And way to the right, that's one of our bangin spas
She quoted I took notice, Spongebob in the Bentley Coupe
Bangin the Isleys, he slow backed up
Then he passed me swoop, seen his chick eyein me hard
He got vexed and smacked his boo
Took off, continued my travels
Seen a rock from the Titanic
Lookin fat and nah it wasn't damaged
The “final” track Momma
meanwhile is a somber number that feels comparable to a comedown after a strong dose of musical adrenaline that Ghostface has employed throughout the album. The humble attitudes conveyed give the listener a profound sense of relaxation as characterized by the bleak piano line, jazzy upright bass licks and gorgeous female vocals.
So yes, the album is brilliant as described. Unfortunately Fishscale
’s faults are primarily the ones that are usually plague most rap albums, that is at 24 tracks the album simply feels “overstuffed”. The abundance of intros, skits and interludes are the main offenders here. Most alarmingly Ghostface feels that its necessary that some of these skits need only be 5 seconds long (such as The Ironman Takeover (Skit)
which only provides an unnecessary workout for my ‘skip’ button. Additionally, the inclusion of a “bonus” track, Three Bricks
seems to complicate the listener’s feelings of as to where the album actually finishes. Though the track is actually quite good, especially considering that it revolves around a “discovered” Notorious B.I.G. rap which tend to be usually disposable, the album feels more complete by ending with Momma
And then of course, there’s the whole notion of the nature of Ghostface’s own rapping. Like Aesop Rock and perhaps even Big Boi, Ghostface is that rare pedigree of rapper that some people may find exhausting to listen to for extended lengths of time due to this intense delivery, dense-rhyming and manic heavily-emotional timbre employed in the majority of his raps.
However, all in all. Fishscale
indeed remains one of the Staten Island rapper’s finest releases to date. Well, at least until he releases another record. In recalling that Ghostface was the Wu-Tang Clan member to drop the first rhyme on their first album on their first CD its particularly interesting to note the immense progression that he has made in the 13 years since. This album is simply another benchmark in his ever-evolving style amidst what some detractors argue an era of mainstream rap that is increasingly becoming hackneyed. This is certainly a point I’d like to emphasize more but ironically, the more I keep writing the more predictable my statements have become. Hell, you probably have already realized that this is the end.
Whip You With a Strap
Back Like That