The Artist Formerly Known As Mad Skillz is known in hip-hop circles for his marathon freestyles, his witty and irreverent year-end round-ups for hiphopsite.com, his lyrical feud with Shaquille O'Neal (which oddly enough was instigated by Shaq-Fu himself), his public ghostwriting for the wealthy yet lyrically challenged, his friends and supporters in high places (?uestlove and Timbaland being perhaps the most prominent), and his memorable live performances. Just about the only thing it seems Skillz isn't known for is actually putting out albums. Even in a genre infamous for label snafus, Skillz's sad story stands out as particularly egregious. For years, Skillz patiently waited in the on-deck circle at onetime indie powerhouse Rawkus for his chance to shine, only to have the label push his album back repeatedly before barely releasing it as I Ain't Mad No More in Canada, then folding. During that time, Skillz maintained a high profile, turning out clever singles like "Ghostwriter," appearing on compilations, and touring with heavyweights like The Roots.
Now, Skillz's Confessions Of A Ghostwriter is finally seeing the light of day with a fraction of the attention and press it would have received had Rawkus released it in a timely fashion in the States. Which is a shame, since while many of the tracks here aren't exactly minty-fresh, Skillz remains a gifted lyricist skilled at injecting new life into tired old tropes. "Imagine," for example, tweaks hip-hop conventions in a giddily subversive fashion. The song begins like an unusually rich, vivid first-person story-song about family, betrayal, and the thin line between slanging rhymes and slanging dope, but it dramatically changes meaning when Skillz delivers the killer punch line: "A lot of cats lie after getting a deal / Most of 'em tell lies and make 'em sound true / I oughta know, I just told one to you." "Skillz Vs. Shaqwan," meanwhile, tackles the familiar territory of male groupies and the perils of hateration before delivering another killer concluding punchline. Another standout track, "You Only Get One," doesn't have a twist, just a visceral tribute to Skillz's mother, delivered with choked-up intensity.
Rawkus' Achilles heel was its ill-advised play for radio singles and crossover success. Accordingly, Ghostwriter is marred at times by transparent bids at club songs. At its worst, Ghostwriter can seem like little more than clever, snottily delivered lines married to slickly minimalist beats, but at its best, it amply justifies the hype and excitement that characterized Skillz's once-promising career. Rawkus' shenanigans gave Skillz ample reason to be mad, but on this CD, he enjoys tardy but sweet revenge.