The last 12 months were pretty dismal for rap. Sales slumped all year, and only T.I.‘s King managed to move the million units needed for platinum certification. Fans found themselves let down by highly anticipated albums, including Jay-Z’s awful un-retirement Kingdom Come and Clipse’s five-years-in-the-making Hell Hath No Fury. Some of the best minds in rap seemed ambivalent about their commitment to the genre. Pharrell’s In My Mind was drenched in falsetto wankery, while Diddy’s Press Play dabbled in drum and bass, electro and Paisley Park funk. The best pop anthems of the year relied on beats from Timbaland and DJ Premier. But nobody bothered to tell Ghostface Killah. In March, he dropped Fishscale, which is showing up near the top of all kinds of year-end lists, rap and otherwise.
The album is a return to the golden age of Wu, the crime-filled Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ironman, on which Ghost teamed up with Chef Raekwon to dramatically recreate scenes from the cocaine trade. When Rae isn’t riding shotgun, Ghostface protege Trife Da God fills in, and the songs take a different turn. With Trife in the booth, Ghost goes from storyteller to New York emcee. Though RZA’s dusted-out soul is absent, MF Doom, Just Blaze and the tragically deceased J-Dilla provide similarly warped and filtered loops as the backdrop. Filled with obsessive detail and strange concepts (“Underwater”???), Fishscale is the Wu-Tang veteran’s best yet.
It figures that More Fish, partially composed of studio cuts that didn’t make Fishscale, is worth a look. At least a third would fit right in with the earlier release. Ghost probably picked the Lewis Parker-produced whodunit “Shakey Dog” for Fishscale over the Lewis Parker-produced whodunit “Outta Town Shit”. They’re both sick, and Ghost is as compelling as ever:
Doves cry when a thug dies
It might rain if you’re a love guy
Glocks we tote ‘em in belong pawn shops where we resold ‘em
And going in we let the fiends hold ‘em
Fake aliases, no driver’s license or socials
But we cold cheek shit, so many hammers left the clerk speechless
Elsewhere he probably chose something like the minor Wu-posse cut “Dogs Of War” over the minor Wu-posse cut “Guns’n'Razors”. Fishscale‘s ode to special ladies and very exciting girls, “Jellyfish”, could probably be swapped out for the less enthusiastic “Greedy Bitches” with Shawn Wigs and Redman. “Good” is clean and uncharacteristically poppy, probably an older single scrapped for the higher profile Ne-Yo collaboration “Back Like That”.
Beyond the Fishscale exclusions, More Fish is heavy on previously released work. “Josephine” and “You Know I’m No Good” are both guest spots, with Cincinnati producer Hi-Tek and British singer Amy Winehouse, respectively. Ghost spits darts over Eric B and Rakim’s classic “Know the Ledge” beat on “Ghost Is Back”, while he teams up with Sheek Louch of The Lox on the mixtape burner “Blue Armor”. Fishscale‘s sappy single “Back Like That” also gets a remix with new lyrics and a verse from Kanye West.
More Fish mostly struggles when Ghostface leaves the mic. In Theodore Unit, Ghost has assembled a small army of the finest rappers in Staten Island that sound like Ghost knock-offs. Somehow Shawn Wigs gets two tracks all to himself. Though “Pokerface” raises amusing hypothetical scenarios involving Shawn Wigs mixtapes hosted by Mike Matusow, he’s got some work to do to get his mic game up to par. Ghostface’s own son, going by Sun God, is passable, but nothing special. This doesn’t include Trife Da God, who continues to make a perfect foil for Ghost on “Josephine” and “Good”, and even takes the lead on “Miguel Sanchez”.
Like any compilation, More Fish doesn’t make much of a statement, except maybe that Ghostface is prolific, and that similar collections may have been left on the cutting room floor from his earlier work. And that’s just frustrating. But all told, there’s enough to make this little Def Jam tax write-off worthy of a listen for anyone that liked Fishscale, not just Ghostface completists. If nothing else, go track down “Greedy Bitches” as confirmation that Redman is still alive, and still wild on the mic.
// Notes from the Road
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