Has it really been 9 years since Ghostface Killah released Fishscale? The fifth solo album from The Wu-Tang Clan’s veteran rhyme-slayer was critically-heralded upon its release, and many sources called it a return to form for Ghostface, whose previous two releases (Bulletproof Wallets, and The Pretty Toney Album) fell short of the astounding quality on his first two records (Ironman and Supreme Clientele). It also was considered a colossal resurgence for the relevance of the Wu-Tang Clan’s brand, as the name had been hindered by countless sub-par album releases since their golden period in the mid-90s. Looking back at this album now, years after it almost single-handedly revived the Wu-Tang spirit, it’s easy to see why it had such an effect. It’s an album that’s pure to Ghostface Killah’s established essence, just done in a far more mature way.
Granted, the term “mature” can have a much different definition in the hip-hop world. Ghostface is still a foul-mouthed angry rapper here, who is often boastful and arguably vulgar when it comes to describing females, but it’s probably his first record that really dissects why he’s on such a gangsta tip. Carried by cautionary tales like “R.A.G.U.”, “Mama” and “Big Girl”, the rapper touches on the harsh realities of drug use, misogyny and inner-city violence, without once coming off as contradictory. Take in mind, Ghostface was a rapper who seemed to condone these areas on previous records (listen to Wild Flower on Ironman for further clarification), yet here Ghostface shows the tender side of him that he had hinted at previously with songs like “All That I Got is You”.
What’s more, the album isn’t just gangsta shit and has plenty of subject matter that would seem out of left-field for another rapper who had previously based his image around street-cred. From the self-explanatory “Barbershop”, to the surreal pop-culture saturated fantasy of Underwater, to the hilarious tale of infatuation gone wrong on “Beauty Jackson”, Fishscale is perhaps the first American hip-hop album since Del the Funky Homosapien I Wish My Brother George Was Here to have such a unique brand of slice-of-life to it.
Also, furthering how Ghostface has made the transition into being a grown-ass man, the record may find its best track in “Whip Me With A Strap”. Here, Ghostface talks about his grievances with today’s youth and how they lack respect simply because their parents are afraid to punish them correctly, Ghostface raps about how he would be beat by a belt-strap by his mother whenever he misbehaved, and his tone is that of respect and understanding rather than admonishment. Aside from the lyrical factor, the song soars musically too with a beat provided by the late J Dilla and a chorus that samples Luther Ingram’s “To the Other Man”. It’s a real beauty to listen to, and delivered in a fashion that’s sweet and intoxicating.
Of course, though, Ghostface isn’t one to forget his roots as a gangsta rapper, and here he has more cinematic flourish than ever. The opening track “Shakey Dog” is a mini-mobster-masterpiece that plays like a lost scene from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and his collaborations with the usual suspects (Raekwon, Cappadonna, Trife) are all skillfully performed, showcasing that the Wu-Tang Clan is still the definitive music for intelligent thugs. We can also be grateful that Ghostface didn’t work with more commonly Wu-Tang affiliated producers here such as RZA or Allah Mathematics, as the beats he uses from the likes of MF Doom, Pete Rock and J Dilla certainly carry the soul-by-way-of-surrealism sound that Ghostface has always craved, but the lack of strings and eerie sound effects (trademarks of RZA’s) make for a record that seems to carry more of Ghostface’s own voice to it.
If there’s one flaw with Fishscale it’s a minor one: the bonus track “Three Bricks” (a cut from the critically lambasted Notorious B.I.G. duets album) feels out of place, but I guess that’s why it’s referred to as a bonus track. In the years since Fishscale, Ghostface has put out plenty of other strong albums (including More Fish which was released the same year), but Fishscale has remained his most satisfying, and his creative peak as a lyricist. The past decade saw plenty of great hip-hop album releases from the likes of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West, but for some reason, I’ve eventually found I’ve worn out all those releases. Fishscale, on the other hand, has only improved each year I’ve listened to it, as I uncover new intricacies through virtually every listen. Maybe by the time I’m 35, I’ll be officially calling it my favorite hip-hop album!