By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
This is one of many entries in a series where I will be doing weekly blurbs on New York’s music scene. From old to new records, we’ll be going over some of the most classic records from The Big Apple and its surrounding region!
There’s nothing more New York than Wu-Tang.
The 90s hip-hop group is easily one of the most iconic of the region, not to mention the entire genre. Finding a classic from this collective’s catalogue is incredibly easy; selecting one is another matter. There’s so many legendary records that Wu-Tang’s put out, both as a group and with its individual artists, that they could have their own series of classics. I think if we were to choose an album from this group, we’d choose one from its most accomplished solo artist: Ghostface Killah.
Ghostface is one of the best rappers of all time, no debate. His contributions to rap history are huge; his presence in Wu-Tang, numerous classic albums, great singles, a consistent catalogue, one of the most recognizable voices in rap? The dude’s a beast. I feel like no other album displays the ways he can mix battle rap skillsets, conceptual storytelling, and pop sensibility quite like 2006’s Fishscale. While not often hailed as his most “classic” album, I personally think this ambitious and addictive album is a high watermark for rap in the 2000s. It showed that Ghost was an MC that would be relevant for years to come. Even in 2022, that fate has held true. So let’s cover the genius of this sprawling tale of drug dealing, love affairs and kingpin combat.
Compared to the previous albums we’ve reviewed in this series, Fishscale is massive. The standard version boasts a thick 24 tracks, with 3 more bonus songs thrown in for good measure. Much like 2022’s The Batman, however, this album never feels long or drawn out. Skits are kept to a minimum in terms of length and usually provide a great transition from track to track, working almost like movie edits bleeding from one to another. The songs themselves are diverse, focusing on a key aspect of Ghost’s drug dealing character, his real life rap prowess, or even his past. Take the duo of “Bad Mouth Kid” and “Whip You With a Strap.” The former is a funny exchange between Ghost and the foul-mouthed son of his girlfriend, leading into the hilarious and nostalgic soul of the latter. Ghosts’s rhymes on this song are perfect, matching the cute nostalgia of the J. Dilla production with his own sentimental lyrics. Dilla’s work on Donuts was used for more than just this track, with “Beauty Jackson” being an intimate and cinematic track detailing Ghost’s infatuation with a femme fatale.
Beyond “Beauty Jackson,” Ghost is perfect at matching the energy of production, matching the beat like an actor does the direction of his writing. When Ghost needs to let out all the stops, he’ll drop an absolute banger like the Just Blaze-produced “The Champ.” When he needs to be a criminal explaining his brand of violence, he’ll rap until he’s out of breath on “Dogs of War.” When he needs to paint the picture of a watery grave, he’ll focus on the imagery of a track like “Underwater.” The use of skits and varied tracks born from the concept of this album ensures you’ll never be bored or checking your watch for the credits.
Speaking of concepts, let’s dive into the concept of Fishscale.
To be fair to most other albums from the Wu-Tang camp, the idea of a “criminal drug dealing” album is nothing new. Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx… is arguably the more influential and narratively tight version of this idea, and Wu-Tang Clan’s core subject matter usually portrays cartoonish or chilling forms of violence. I don’t think Fishscale shines in its plot; there isn’t so much a story but a loose collection of well detailed storyboards and characters. Rather, I think it shines in how many ways it tackles the criminal concept and still finds ways to make it unique. Take the song “Kilo,” with its intro of clacking coke-cutting tools, Ghostface’s heartbeat, and nasty beat drop. “All around the world today, the kilo is the measure” the backing vocals chirp as Ghost and Raekwon discuss their addictive business venture. The aforementioned tools remain a part of the beat as they talk, almost like the two are freestyling while bagging their supply. “Shakey Dog” sounds like the explosive opening to an action movie, with fat horns and car wheels squealing underneath Ghost’s frantic delivery. The track is a brilliant introduction to his character and the over-the-top ethos of the record.
This crazed energy is utilized to perfection throughout, often escalating the album’s tracks that don’t directly tie into its concept. The MF DOOM-produced “9 Milli Bros” exemplifies this perfectly, what with its villainous keys and gamut of great Wu-Tang verses, each more amped and outrageous than the last. I can’t think of an album that has a song all about how disrespectful a bad haircut is, but “Barbershop” is a both a great dive into how Ghost views lazy barbers and how his character takes offense at the slightest of slights. These tracks aren’t about the moving of fishscaled cocaine, but they flesh out the world in which it is moved and shake things up.
Speaking on Ghost, it’s natural that above all he is the star of this album. Yes the production from figures like Pete Rock, J. Dilla and MF DOOM is incredible, features from Ne-Yo, Ice Cube, Trife and Raekwon are some of their careers’ best, and the story of the album is engaging and fun…but the man who pulls it all together is Ghost. His pen is incredibly sharp, especially when he takes out his aggression on an equally aggressive beat. “Clipse of Doom” and “Be Easy” are some of the most hard-hitting tracks ever, boasting creative gun talk on the former and some of the most impressive brags I’ve ever heard on the latter. More so than his other albums, however, his pen offers great pop power. The chorus on “Be Easy” is catchy and earth-shaking when it first hits. “Back Like That” is a huge single for Ghost and Ne-Yo, a rap and R&B blend that is as catchy as it is toxic, perfected with a glamorous beat. This track is also one of the few that displays Ghost’s secret weapon on this record: genuine, raw emotion.
That raw emotion can be found on “Big Girl” and “Momma,” some of the hardest hitting tracks Ghost has written. “Big Girl” is a critique on the people who wantonly use drugs for escapism…but the sour delivery of the lyrics and dramatic beat almost seems to point the blame on Ghost himself. “Momma,” the closer of the album’s standard tracks, is almost confessional. The track is an ode to moms everywhere, putting up with the bullshit and hardships that women tend to face in today’s world. It’s a beautiful track, accentuated by a beautiful R&B hook. To think that any MC can be this versatile in general, let alone on one album, is insane. Ghost, however, is the man for that four-dimensional skillset. He can play the straight man, the villain, the anti-hero…and yet he still remains charismatic, relatable and impressive.
And that’s the one word I’d use to describe Fishscale. It’s an impressive album that is a culmination of all of Ghostface Killah’s best traits, whether they be his songwriting, his production choices, or his rapping ability. It’s an album that packs tons of different kinds of moods and ideas into one conceptual package, but never feels bloated or overly long. This is my ideal kind of album, one with a little bit of everything for every mood but still manages to work cohesively as one unit. Much like the Wu-Tang Clan itself, Fishscale and Ghostface Killah bring in a lot of crazy ideas into one big pot, but what they end up serving is so addicting that you’ll want to come back around for more.
But that’s just my take on it. What do you think about Fishscale? Is it a classic to you, or do you find another Wu-Tang album to be superior? Any favorite songs from Ghostface Killah from this album or another? Let me know in the comments!
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