Preview: Ghostface Killah's New Album More Fish

morefish.jpgSomeone needs to tell me where I can get this hat

I'm not done with my year-end lists yet, still haven't heard the new UGK or Jeezy or Nas yet. But I can say this with some certainty: Fishscale, Ghostface Killah's fourth-best album, is also the fourth-best album of the year. Every Ghostface album is nearly as good as every other Ghostface album; he's been more consistently inspired than any other figure in rap. Ghost's commercial prospects have faded since Wu-Tang's heyday, but that lack of mainstream fame may be an artistic boon. Ghost always talks about how his new album is going to be the one to turn him into a major star, but he doesn't seem remotely interested in making that actually happen. Instead, he keeps crawling further and further into his own deeply peculiar aesthetic, and that's what's kept him sharp. Compare that to Jay-Z's tiresome money-talk or Nas's pervasive pessimism or Too Short's uncomfortable obsolescence. Those guys all hit career heights way higher than anything Ghost achieved, and they don't know what to do with themselves these days. Ghost keeps plugging away, keeping his breathless yell hard and surreal, and he hasn't stopped churning out great records. More Fish, his new album, is coming out less than eight months after the last one, and it's got even less in the way of commercial concessions than any of his earlier albums: no R&B singers, no big-name guests, precious few hooks. It's Ghost's Roc La Familia, a showcase for his Theodore Unit crew. The weed-carrier album is a bad move historically, and no one in Ghost's crew has the potential to be anywhere near as great as Ghost. More Fish might as well be the DVD extras from Fishscale, but it's still a good album. This guy can do anything.

I heard More Fish last night at a listening party, and that's never an ideal way to hear a new album. They cram a bunch of music-industry vampire types into a big room at a recording studio, ply them with free drinks and catered food, and blast the album so loud that you can barely pick out lyrics. There were plenty of distractions last night, not the least of which was Ghost himself; he showed up when the album was about halfway over, true to form. The Theodore guys all milled around, giving distracted intros to most of the album's tracks and chastising me for misspelling people's names in the interview I did earlier in the year (sorry, guys). The tables in the room all had drinking glasses filled with water and pebbles and live goldfish, I guess because the album is called More Fish; I felt bad for the fish. For about fifteen minutes, I was totally convinced that I'd lost my backpack. In these circumstances, it's hard to give an accurate critical read of an album.

So I laughed when Trife introduced a slow, pretty Hi-Tek production called "Josephine" by saying, "This is that real conscious shit right there." But the label handed out sampler CDs of a few of the album's songs, and "Josephine" is one of them; listening today, Trife was right. "Josephine" is a tender, sympathetic song about a neighborhood crackhead girl: "The clinic didn't help / She's just another young black woman destroying her pretty image and her health." Ghost helped develop the crack-rap trope, and here he uses his vivid eloquence for good, empathizing with one of his customers. It's an uncharacteristically calm and quiet moment in an album that's otherwise a frantic storm of drums and horns. "Street Opera" is a swollen classical track like Cam'ron's "Get Em Girls," the sort of epic banger that rappers have to fight to be heard. "Out of Town Shit" is a track about out-of-state criminal dealings, and it has a moment where, if I'm not mistaken, Ghost says "punch you in your motherfucking face like Spongebob," which makes two inscrutable Spongebob references in one year from Ghost, an impressive tally. On "God 2 God," Ghost trades lines with his son, Sun God, but doesn't let his kid's presence stop him from saying something about "we ran trains for hours up in the Day's Inn," not exactly the sort of thing that'll earn him Father of the Year honors anytime soon.

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As for the Theodore guys, they're nowhere near Ghost's level, but most of them are pretty good and getting better. Trife has a precise, high-pitched bark; he sounds something like an overexcited Jadakiss. Sun God has an ominous, gravelly growl; he'd make a decent D-Block affiliate. Only token white guy Shawn Wiggs really drags everything down; they should maybe consider limiting him to hypeman duties. But what's weird about the album is the total lack of involvement from the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan. Cappadonna, also a Theodore Unit member, might show up once or twice; I can't really remember. But the rest of the Clan is completely absent; it's like the group never existed. Ghost has become increasingly distant from the rest of the group in recent years, but even The Pretty Toney Album had a RZA beat or two. It makes sense that Ghost might want to strike out on his own, especially since he's unquestionably the most relevant member of the group these days. But if he's hoping to replace his old crew with this new one, I hope he realizes what he'll be losing.

Voice review: Greg Tate on Ghostface Killah's Fishscale Voice review: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Ghostface's The Pretty Toney Album

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