Not the real album cover, unfortunately
Well, he’s done it again. Fishscale is yet another amazing but impossible-to-sell Ghostface album. It’s the weirdest thing; he talks about how his career isn’t popping off like it should, how he has Def Jam behind him now, how he’s ready to go out and work himself to the bone promoting this thing, and then he goes and makes an album full of claustrophobically discordant coke-rap that will immediately scare away anyone who doesn’t already love him. Only maybe three or four of the songs on Fishscale have actual hooks, and we’ve already heard two of them, “Back Like That” and “Be Easy.” He’s enlisted MF Doom for four or five tracks, and he’s taken the absolute weirdest stuff Doom had to offer, dizzy and stormy and cluttered things. There’s an amazingly strained and urgent Just Blaze banger, just a mind-bendingly great song, but it’s not going to get Ghost’s crazy ass on 106 & Park anytime soon. His one concession is “Back Like That,” which will probably get some rotation just like “Tush” and that Bulletproof Wallets song with Carl Thomas, but it’s not going to turn him into a star overnight.
Other than that one song, Fishscale is Ghost’s most aggressively weird album since Supreme Clientele. The frenzied lyrical free-association has almost disappeared (though there is this one insane song about being underwater I’ll talk about later), but it’s musically his most dense and fiery work, and there’s a good chance it’ll end up being my favorite album of the year. The entire Wu-Tang Clan appears altogether on one song, the apocalyptic banger “Nine Milli Brothers,” all of them getting a couple of bars (including a posthumous ODB), and all of them sounding great. An uncharacteristically low-key Raekwon shows up on a few tracks, as does a wildly reanimated Cappadonna (“AKA the cabriver” he says at one point) and a quickly improving Trife. Ghost’s son SG, who rapped a bit at Ghost’s October BB King’s show, gets a verse; he sounds like an average young NY mixtape rapper, which is more than anyone could’ve expected. And beyond that, there are no guest rappers, just Ghost going hard throughout, lovingly describing crack-selling memories and women standing at bus stops and, like, child abuse (the Jay Dee track “Strap” finds him nostalgic about getting his ass beat).
The album flows beautifully, the one weak track (“Charlie Brown”) buried near the end and “Be Easy” and “Back Like That” working perfectly in context. One song, “Big Girl,” is a slightly dubious story-track about telling women to get their act together and stop getting high, but it’s told with enough humane grace that it doesn’t sound condescending, at least not on first listen. The first two tracks, gun-talk memories both, are nearly as strident as “Run.” Other, later tracks are simply gorgeous, built from the same dusky soul samples he used through much of The Pretty Toney Album. On first listen, it seems pretty much predestined that Ghost is going to remain a critics’ favorite and nothing more; that’s fine with me, even if it isn’t fine with him.
Keep in mind, though, that I’ve only heard this album once, and I heard it last night at a listening party. I’d been avoiding these things since I moved to New York; this was my first. The idea always kind of grossed me out: record companies so paranoid about music critics bootlegging their shit (whatever) that they refuse to send out promo copies and instead invite everyone into a studio so they can schmooze around and half-listen to the album while it plays on really expensive speakers. It turned out to be really fun, though, all full of writers (many of whom I know) and Def Jam intern-types, everyone sitting on really uncomfortable metal folding chairs and crowding around tiny white tables, eating free food (slightly stale fried coconut-shrimp and some kind of really spicy Jamaican chicken-wings) and drinking free booze (Bacardi with pineapple juice is nasty; Bacardi with blue Powerade is amazing). You go through metal detectors and through hallways full of posters of Beyonce and Aerosmith and Harry Connick, Jr. and Beyonce again, into a room with red lights and crinkled-up strips of cloth hanging on the walls. The best part was the DVD they showed Ghostface explaining all the songs. Apparently the artists often show up to these things, but Ghost was on the Wu-Tang tour, so he taped this thing instead. It worked out great; he wouldn’t have opened up much if he was looking this room full of people in the face, but he did when he was talking into a camera: “Please people, just listen, listen carefully … I don’t want y’all checking y’all cell phones, ordering pizza and shit.” He went into a surprising amount of detail about putting songs together: “If there’s a wack nigga out of four niggas, usually you’ll put that nigga (long pause) third.” In one truly stunning moment, he talked about the album’s final song, which is about being underwater, seeing mermaids and Spongebob and the necklace from Titanic, everyone eventually going to a mosque and praying. Just hearing this song is a total mindfuck; seeing Ghostface explain it is even more so. So maybe all this stuff made me like the album more than I would’ve otherwise, but I don’t know. It’s pretty fucking great.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on the Wu-Tang Clan reunion
Voice review: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Ghostface’s The Pretty Toney Album