If carrying Wu-Tang Clan on his bathrobe-clad back for the past decade is wearing on Ghostface Killah, the strain doesn't show. Ghostface's 2004 release The Pretty Toney Album was the best Wu-Tang solo album since, well, 2000's Supreme Clientele. But Pretty Toney's fusion of trendy hyper-soul beats, agitated delivery, and deranged street narratives feels like a mere warm-up for its stunning follow-up, Fishscale. After his Wu-Tang-lite Def Jam debut, Ghostface is thankfully back to tag-teaming tracks with Raekwon. But he's also incorporated the best of underground hip-hop by cherry-picking beats from J. Dilla's soul-dusted Donuts and MF Doom's Special Herbs.
Ghostface has reportedly been off drugs for two years, but that hasn't kept him from naming Fishscale after high-grade cocaine or making arguably his druggiest album to date. "Underwater," for example, suggests a dream that "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" might have upon falling asleep in the bathtub after ingesting powerful mushrooms. Ghostface's narratives have a way of taking unexpected turns. "Big Girl" begins like James Toback's film Black & White, with Ghost asking three coke-addled party girls if they "buff helmets." As the Stylistics croon empathetically, the song veers unexpectedly into To Sir With Love territory, once Ghostface decides to play guidance counselor to the misguided coke-fiends by mapping out the glorious futures awaiting them if they kick blow.
In contrast to his aggressive delivery on Toney, Ghostface is far more relaxed, confident, and eclectic here. One of rap's most cinematic and sophisticated storytellers, he fills his pulp narratives with so much novelistic detail that it's impossible to catch everything on the first listen. Thankfully, the kaleidoscopic, soul-drenched production by Doom, Pete Rock, Jay Dee, Just Blaze, and others make repeat listens seem tempting, even downright irresistible. Sure, Fishscale has its share of pointless skits. But that's what the fast-forward button is for, just as the play button seems to have been designed specifically to let people listen to Fishscale over and over again.