Saturday, December 13, 2008

Selected Retrospective: Ghostface Killah | Fishscale

"You ain't been hungry since Supreme Clientele," a raspy voice imitating Mickey the trainer from Rocky tells Ghostface Killah. He's right. Ghostface's albums between Supreme and this his fifth album were often uninspired and lacking his fevered need to get on the mic. Fishscale, produced by MF DOOM, Pete Rock, J Dilla, among others, isn't a return to form. It greatly surpasses his previous best effort and firmly establishes him as one of the best rappers alive.

Proof isn't hard to come by. Dig "Shakey Dog," the first track off the album. Lyrically, it's a first-person account of a drug heist gone terribly wrong. The level of detail in the lyrics ("Back seat with my leg all stiff...tartar sauce on S Dot kicks") is worthy of the strongest crime fiction. Rapnoir, anybody? But the tune's structure is what freaks me out. Ghostface raps for 64 straight bars without pausing for a hook or chorus. Given that the standard hip-hop verse is 16 bars long, this is extraordinary. Absurd thoughts crossed my mind listening to the narrative: Does Ghostface breathe? If so, has he learned circular breathing? Is it possible this is a freestyle, no pen-and-pad, rap? Just when those thoughts began to interfere with paying attention to the song, something uncommon happened with the horns and the loping bassline -- tonal modulation. "Wait," you say, "he raps for 64 bars nonstop and the song changes chords too?" Yeah, that's right, homie. 12 bars in the A sections and four bars in the B sections. That's how Ghostface rolls, though the structure is loosened up the first time around. For good reason, it took me quite a while to get to track two. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that "Shakey Dog" bests "Nutmeg" and "Run" as far as prime Ghostface Killah jams go.

Fishscale, slang for uncut cocaine, mostly focuses on coke slanging, or "pyrex scholars," as Ghost says. "Kilo" introduces the metric system while Ghost and Raekwon cook coke, "Big Girl" cautions ladies to lay off the nose candy, and "Crack Spot" spotlights the dangers of paranoia. When Ghost's next album drops, I hope he's as hungry as he is here.

NOTE: In "Whip You With A Strap" Ghostface samples a J Dilla song off of Donuts, the last album Dilla cut while alive. The song he sampled is called "One for Ghost." Glad Dilla was keeping an eye out.

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