A couple months ago, a Wu-Tang Clan freestyle from 1993 resurfaced amidst the treasure trove known as the internet. Over period grime and breaks, members took turns showing and proving what made their group so impressive early on; their common sense of head-bending wordplay and aggressive delivery made them the most cohesive collective since Golden Age crews like the Cold Crush Brothers. Although the five captured in the recording gelled well together, only a few were clearly ready for primetime — sensible that Method Man and RZA book-ended the session. On the flip side, the least distinct was the one who referenced himself the most: Ghostface Killah. Though filling his verse with images both brutal and askew, like “Nigga make moves like a baby crawl” and “I be housin’ the track; bob and weave”, he sounded married to the beat and marched through his lines with a stolid cadence. Listening to this session today, where even Inspectah Deck’s turn turns memorable for a flub, I am hard pressed to hear the star potential of the artist normally known as Dennis Coles.
Yet, in 2006 the W lives on principally through Pretty Toney. Who brings the grit to an R&B hit? Not, Meth, but Ghost. Who works the underground circuit? GZA, kinda, but not like Ghost. And who still finds life in those ol’ synthetic, trampish, skull snappin’ breaks? You guessed it. Unlike his compatriots who became instant vintage, Ghostface has slowly raised his work from a coiling simmer to a bubbling boil. While his one-two opening combo of Ironman and Supreme Clientele remain hard to beat, he has since toned his persona and sculpted his style “down to a science.” In ’93, Coles had to emphatically repeat his name. In ’06, he just needs one word: “Theodore.”
So, consider Ghostface’s fifth album Fishscale (kids, ask Tyrone Biggums what this means) the latest upgrade — a further refinement. He continues to yarn familiar trap tales, which may seem blasé with all the young’ns clamoring for a cut. However, Ghost’s are a reminder that you can have your crack rap and not be so simple about it. He indulges in twisted drug tales and twisting life lessons over choice soul loops, constantly inverting meaning and bending context to his will — who else can turn a children’s record on the metric system into a neo-Scarface routine… and still keep it punchy and catchy? A modern summation of being Stylistic, Fishscale is pungent with the presence of Ghostface, more so than any fish being pushed.
Fishscale owes a large part of its success to Ghostface’s vivid storytelling. Building on his knack for distinct imagery that crosses pop culture with measured violence — like “I’m James Bond in the Octagon / With two razors” — he walks easily through drug deals gone awry (“Shakey Dog”) and memories of corporal punishment (“Whip You with a Strap”). His ease with and choice of detail makes the mundane TCB, Raekwon tag-team of “R.A.G.U” such a joy to listen to. Admittedly, Ghost’s foray into the wonderful world of narrative occasionally runs astray, notably on excessive skits (seven cuts on a 24-track album) like the juvenile “Heart Street Directions”. However, as dense as the album becomes with so many vignettes in roughly an hour, Fishscale is one of the emcee’s most cohesive recorded statements.
Of course, perhaps what keeps the fans flocking to Pretty Toney more than his growth chart is his foundation in the past. With an eye in his back, he often emphasizes the distance between the present and the time of his stories, tinting his work with nostalgia apt for the grown’n thuggish. Ghost made this point literally on his previous album’s single “Holla”, which revealed the emcee going to town over a wholesale slab of The Delfonics’ “La La (Means I Love You)”. Here, “Big Girl” revisits “Holla” as Ghost toasts both Honey and Viola from the block and Honey and Viola cutting product over The Stylistics’ “You’re a Big Girl Now”. Such, is the charm of Ghostface: whether he is busy redefining Mr. T’s glory (“The Champ”) or adding a chapter to his crew’s story (the Wu-Tang reunion on “9 Milli Brothers”), he has been committed to what he came up with and continues to grow with it. For that I have to differ slightly from Elliott Wilson’s recent observation that Ghostface is “truly a soul baby”: now, he’s a true soul man.