Tuesday, September 25, 2007

[062] Fishscale

Album: Fishscale
Artist: Ghostface Killah
Release Date: March 2006
Label: Def Jam
Producers: MF DOOM, Pete Rock, J Dilla, Lewis Parker, Just Blaze, Ghostface Killah, Xtreme, Crack Val, MoSS, The Studio Beatz, Sean C & LV, with Anthony Acid & Ken Lewis; bonus track produced by Cool & Dre, with Diddy

“Trailblazing, stay ballin’ with vengeance,
my arts is crafty darts while y’all stuck with ‘Laffy Taffy',
Wondering how did y’all niggas get past me?
I’ve been doing this before Nas dropped the ‘Nasty’.
My Wallos, I did ‘em up,
My bricks, I sent ‘em up,
My raps, y’all bit ‘em up,
For that, now stick ‘em up.
Ten-Four, good buddy, Tone got his money up,
Worth millions, still bag your bitch looking bummy.
Y’all staring at the angel of death;
Liar, Liar, pants on fire, you’re burning up like David Koresh.”
- from “The Champ”

One of my favorite books is Hip Hop America, a chronicle of the music’s first two decades by Nelson George, longtime music journalist and former co-producer of Chris Rock's HBO show. In one of the chapters, George examines how Hip-Hop music evolves so fast as an artform, it has to constantly eat up naïve young artists and discard its pioneers; like many sports, most MC’s don’t make it past 30 years old. The Old School artists had a hard time adjusting to the faster rhyme styles and frenetic beats of the late 80’s and early 90’s, but as the trends and tastes of the audience have changed over the last decade, the MC’s that debuted in the post-Chronic days of the early/mid 90’s seem to have adjusted well to the role of elder statesmen while still keeping a fairly high profile. They appear to have figured out longevity from a commercial standpoint in order to grant them more artistic opportunities. On the other hand, as present as Snoop, Jay-Z or Nas may be, c’mon, we can all agree it is pretty clear their best days are behind them. Even the prospect of a reunited Wu-Tang album for this coming November doesn’t fill me with the excitement it should. I find it refreshing then to say that Wu’s Ghostface Killah, 35 years old at the release of Fishscale, remains not only commercially relevant (this album debuted at #4 on the Billboard album chart), but also creatively fascinating. From a mainstream perspective, his only peers at this point would probably be Outkast.

Ghostface loves to disrupt your expectations, and by acting his age, he upsets the formula that the genre is stuck in. Instead of being the hardest MC alive, Ghost has no problem showing his sensitive side; "Whip You With A Strap" gets nostalgic for childhood discipline, while on the wonderful "Beauty Jackson", Ghost doesn't get the girl because he's packing heat. "Big Girl" begs the girls to leave that coke alone, even though it's still being featured on an album with more than a few songs from the perspective of a drug kingpin. Like his Def Jam label boss, Jay-Z, Ghostface has found comfort in maturing on wax, never trying to act like a young turk when he was really a grizzled veteran; at this point, Ghostface could be seen as the Rap Brett Favre. Unlike Jay though, to stay fresh and creative, Ghostface has mostly turned away from the mainstream, choosing instead to record a glut of material with collaborators from the more underground end of Hip-Hop. He might occasionally do a single with Missy Elliott, Amy Winehouse, or Ne-Yo, whose pop crossover attempt, "Back Like That", is far from embarassing, but he’d surround it by tracks produced by MF DOOM (4 tracks here; collabo album coming soon) or have "Strap" and "Beauty Jackson" blessed by the late J Dilla. Over the last 4 years, Ghost has released 2 proper albums, a rarities collection and 3 albums worth of material with his crew, The Theodore Unit; that’s not to mention the stray tracks scattered across mixtapes and the Internet. Fishscale is the best album from this period, what I like to call the “Pretty Toney era", and when it was released, it was pretty much universally hailed as an instant Rap classic, being named Album of the Year in more than a few venues. When I wrote about the album as part of my Best of 2006 feature (I placed it at #3, though in retrospect, I would now bump it up a spot), I compared it to The Beatles' legendary “White Album”, and I believe that the comparison still holds true. Both albums are hour-plus long excursions into new sound, deep with experiments and new approaches. The wonder comes in the snapshot of the creative process; not everything works, but when it does, it can be truly awesome.

The album opens effectively with “Shakey Dog”, a Hip-Hop crime narrative of godlike proportions. Ghost spits a never-ending stream of consciousness tale of a drug heist gone wrong, skipping any notion of a chorus and barely breaking to take a breath. As an artist with at least a dozen tracks that can be called certified Hip-Hop classics, it stands as the best song of his career, and belongs in the pantheon of epic Rap crime stories alongside the best of Kool G Rap, Nas and Biggie. “Crack Spot” and “R.A.G.U.” are almost as good; the former is a comedic tale of drug paranoia over a Charlie’s Angels beat. The latter features Raekwon and Ghost coming together over the smoothest of Pete Rock’s three strong contributions. Rock’s “Be Easy” is a classic party jam from days gone by, complete with booming bass, brass, and boasts, while “Dogs Of War” is the best of the album’s group cuts, featuring Ghost’s teenage son, Sun God, while Pete Rock chops up Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” in the background. Ghost has always excelled over tracks culled from the Soul music of the 60’s and 70’s, getting better with each album, but on Fishscale, he branches out with excellent results. On Rocky-quoting "The Champ", producer Just Blaze brings his usual bombast to support Ghost's legendary battle rhymes, but this time with searing Rock guitar; MF DOOM does the same for "Clipse of Doom" while DOOM brings Ghost some sunny 60's garage pop on "Jellyfish", and his trippy "Underwater" is almost beyond description, but it would need to be to back up Ghost's story about "SpongeBob in the Bentley coupe" and "mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts". It's this type of thing that Ghost tosses off with subtle humor and almost no effort, and why he's probably the best MC around right now. Even the album's outtakes are incredible; do yourself a favor and seek out the unreleased "Charlie Brown" and the mindblowing "Alex (Stolen Script)", from More Fish. Even more encouraging is that, by all evidence, the "Pretty Toney era" isn't over yet. If this is where Ghost is at now, imagine where he'll be in five years; he'll probably be calling himself "the Stephen Hawking of Rap" or something equally hilarious and ridiculous. For now, we'll have to settle for "Architect music, verbal street opera", but I'm definitely not complaining.

01. “The Return Of Clyde Smith” [interlude]
02. “Shakey Dog”
03. “Kilo” [feat. Raekwon]
04. “The Champ”
05. “Major Operation” [interlude]
06. “9 Milli Bros.” [feat. Wu-Tang Clan]
07. “Beauty Jackson”
08. “Heart Street Directions” [interlude]
09. “Columbus Exchange” [interlude]/“Crack Spot”
10. “R.A.G.U.” [feat. Raekwon]
11. “Bad Mouth Kid” [interlude]
12. “Whip You With A Strap”
13. “Back Like That” [feat. Ne-Yo]
14. “Be Easy” [feat. Trife]
15. “Clipse Of Doom” [feat. Trife]
16. “Jellyfish” [feat. Cappadonna, Shawn Wigs, & Trife]
17. “Dogs Of War” [feat. Raekwon, Trife, Cappadonna, & Sun God]
18. “Barbershop”
19. “Ms. Sweetwater” [interlude]
20. “Big Girl”
21. “Underwater”
22. “The Ironman Takeover” [interlude]
23. “Momma” [feat. Megan Rochell]
24. “Three Bricks” [feat. The Notorious B.I.G. & Raekwon] [bonus track]

"Shakey Dog" [audio]

"Beauty Jackson" [audio/fan video]

- BONUS: “Columbus Exchange” [interlude]/“Crack Spot” [audio]
- BONUS: "Back Like That" [video]
- BONUS: "The Champ" [audio]
set to scenes of Rocky III
- BONUS: "9 Milli Bros." [audio]
- BONUS: "Whip You With A Strap" [audio]
- BONUS: "Clipse Of Doom" [audio]
- BONUS: "Be Easy" [live at B.B.King's, NYC 10.05]
Preceded by a freestyle by Sun God (Ghost's son); Pete Rock on the decks

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