True, seeing a great band, or a great Staten Island hip-hop nonet, on their way up in a scuzz-varnished club makes for a fine self-congratulatory story, but that's no reason to be less excited about seeing a great band or Staten Island hip-hop nonet on their way down in a scuzz-varnished club. Even if Wu-Tang Clan were wholly past their prime and/or dead, you'd be advised to see them bring the motherfucking ruckus and whatnot this week at First Ave., which isn't actually varnished with scuzz. The show is doubly must-see since the crew's premiere MC, Ghostface Killah, remains at the peak of his unusual powers, and has sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly, been amassing one the richest catalogs in rap history.
The 36-year-old's fifth album, Fishscale, is probably the most acclaimed album of '06's first half. In the two most common estimations, it's his best ever, or his best since 2000's Supreme Clientele. I say it's his best since the underpromoted Pretty Toney Album, his fourth album, a yin/yang marriage between grade-A tough-guy bullshit and the bitter-almond scent of sweet soul's late '60s/early '70s falsetto heyday. Ah, but no one listens to me, not even my dog, and you can't score comeback hype by making your best album since your last album. Besides, Fishscale, part concept album about dealing uncut coke, part regular album about whatever (bus-stop romance, untrustworthy barbers, mermaids) is really good, so I'm not circulating an Aging Rapper's Album Overrated petition or anything.
As this century began, Ghost was fooling around with a Jackson Pollack/Frank O'Hara/Ornette Coleman/Bob Dylan-type rhyming style—not words that asked you to puzzle out meaning and gush about their complexity, and not cleverly arranged words about meaningless subjects, but words that rejected meaning, words, seemingly assembled by chance and contorted into perfect rhythm, that simply sounded cool together. A few scattered lines from Supreme: "You nice Lord, sweet daddy Grace, wind lifted on the dance floor/mangos is free followed by Ghost/Dug behind monument cakes, we never half-baked, Alaskan, cess-capade, pushin' new court dates"; and "Black blades, one hundred dollar seats/Hold up, we at the opera/Queen Elizabeth rub on my leg/Had ketchup on her dress from a Whopper." Not that this sort of thing is unprecedented in rap; Kool Keith and Flavor Flav were making word-splatter classics back in the day before the day. But Ghost's abstraction was odd in that there was nothing ostentatiously "crazy" about his writing or delivery. It was comic but still full of his usual macho intensity. The guy's high-pitched, high-paced delivery almost always sounds inflamed, yet in control. On Supreme and some of Wu's The W, it was like he'd just been rear-ended by the Jabberwock. Fittingly, MF DOOM, another rap veteran and the current abstract pack leader, was called on to produce some of Fishscale, and is behind the album's strangest tracks, most notably the "Octopus's Garden"-like fantasy, "Underwater." A full-length Ghost/DOOM project is reportedly forthcoming.
Anyway, the sublime nonsense stuff was hot, but Ghost has distinguished himself most as rap's sharpest memoirist and its most painterly storyteller, and that's what he's up to on Fish. His crime vignettes, childhood reminiscences, and narratives of love, sex, and betrayal are short on dramatic arc but opulent with detail, evocative dialogue, and memorable images. After a predictably stupid intro, Fishscale starts with Ghostface's most ambitious gangster tale yet, "Shakey Dog," three-minutes of uninterrupted, motor-mouth yarn-spinning in which Tony Sparks, Ghost's outlaw alter-ego, and an associate stage a heist of a dealer's apartment that ends in much death (several people, one dog). It ends with a cliffhanger, but I for one could only care a smidge less what happens in the next installment, so long as it happens. It's the scene setters I like: the fact that on the ride over to the stick-up, the back seat is cramped, and Tony spills tartar sauce on his sneakers, that when they arrive the target's crib stinks of onion-covered T-bones and that Tony's stomach growls in response, that a Sanford and Son rerun is on. In "Maxine," from Ghost's underrated Bulletproof Wallets, chief collaborator Raekwon had some other deadbeats watching Knight Rider. These are artists who've watched an enormous amount of TV. Over the years Ghost has also name-checked or alluded to Cagney and Lacey, The Honeymooners, even Luke and Laura, the rapist/victim turned happy husband/wife from General Hospital.
He's also a student of crime movies, and so he knows that the nihilist gangster is best as a supporting player—it's the trigger-happy yet vulnerable, love-starved antihero who makes things interesting. Again it's his focus on detail that elevates standard forms. In "All That I Got Is You," a tour of project poverty and a tribute to his mother, there are pliers for the TV channel knob, roaches in the cereal, humiliating trips of supplication to neighbors' doorsteps. In his several spurned-lover laments there are always lines—desperate, trivial, vitriolic—that seem snatched from real-life arguments and scrawled letters: "That night I cried with the kids"; "And you can keep the crib"; "I'm the first nigga that had you watching flicks by DeNiro"; "You sneaky fuck bitch." Even on "Wildflower," the hateful woman-hating screed from his debut album, there's real pathos when he cries, "That shit hurt!"
The love-gone-bad lament from Fishscale is "Back Like That," a catchy-as-hell sell-out single (his sellouts are almost always great, purists be damned). The childhood remembrance is "Whip You with a Strap," produced by J Dilla around a Luther Ingram sample. Perversely, the MC argues that kids today are incorrigible 'cause they're given time-outs, not beatings—while he remembers "that belt stinging after I wet the bed" and going "outside for free lunch with welts on my legs still leaking." "Besides the alcohol I had a great old mama," he insists. It's beautiful and haunting. Then there are less complicated bangers: "Kilo," loping Blow 101 funk with sniffs providing one of 42 hooks; "Be Easy," which Pete Rock produced with the bounce gods smiling on; "The Champ," with Just-Blaze's beat demanding to be way louder than its surrounding cuts. "The Champ" uses a stock motif, the rapper as heavyweight, but Ghostface finds life in the moribund, and the more he rhymes, the more the competition seems doomed. Not only will he knock 'em out, he will pick the round.