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Ghostface Killah's 'Fishscale' at 10: Classic Track-by-Track Album Flashback

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Ghostface Killah at Hiro in New York City on Feb. 27, 2006.

Nowadays, there's a Wu-Tang Clan name generator, but back when the nine members of the groundbreaking Staten Island hip-hop crew chose their monikers, they put some thought into it.  As Method Man explains on the group's 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), each rapper's name corresponds with his style. Ghostface Killah, Meth says, is "on some now-you-see-me, now-you-don't," which is a good way to describe the frighteningly talented MC and lyricist born Dennis Coles.

On his first four solo albums, Ghost proved himself one of the Clan's most versatile and consistent MCs. He was like a one-man rap posse: gangster, ladies' man, back-in-the-day nostalgist, and absurdist street poet, all rolled into one. In his trademark robes and Wallabee kicks, he was a colorful personality with an understated sense of humor who never became the cartoon character his bandmate Ol' Dirty Bastard did. When Ghost’s fifth LP, Fishscale, dropped 10 years ago (on March 28, 2006), it was less a left turn than it was an on-ramp for new fans.

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Fishscale arrived midway through a decade in which a general broadening of listener tastes led many indie-rock kids to discover all the amazing non-mainstream hip-hop they'd been sleeping on. Due in part to a strong promo push from Def Jam, Fishscale generated lots of press coverage and landed on numerous critical best-of lists. On the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, it came in third, sandwiched between TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain and The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls In America. Ghost’s best placement before that had been 14th, for 2000’s Supreme Clientele.

Compared to Supreme Clientele, which many cite as Ghost’s finest LP, Fishscale is a musically richer set. Handed stacks of beats by Def Jam to choose from, Ghost picked choice instrumentals by such hip-hop heavies as Just Blaze, Pete Rock, MF Doom, and Detroit legend J. Dilla, who died about two months before the record dropped. The songs stand out from each other, even though most are based around Ghost’s beloved vintage soul samples.

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Thematically, the LP loosely fits with the “coke rap” subgenre exemplified by records like Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, which dropped later in 2006. But Ghost doesn’t just rhyme about the drug trade. There are a handful of love songs, a Wu reunion track, and one seriously weird undersea adventure. The album reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and yielded Ghost’s biggest solo hit to date, “Back Like That,” featuring Ne-Yo (No. 61 on the Hot 100).

“Really, the beats are what makes me do the shit,” Ghost told HipHopDx, explaining why Fishscale is so heavy on narrative-driven songs that were becoming his trademark. “I’m good at stories, I’m starting to really know that that’s really my element.”

Read on for a track-by-track (minus skits and bonus cuts) take on this, a record that quickens the pulse and keeps you coming back for more -- just like the high-grade coke it’s named for.

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“Shakey Dog”: It would take Scorsese or Tarantino at least 20 minutes to achieve what Ghost does here in 3:44. Getting busy over U.K. producer Lewis Parker’s beat -- featuring a deftly placed sample of Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon’s 1970 tune “Love Is Blue (L’Amour Est Bleu)” -- Ghost delivers a breathless description of a robbery gone wrong. From the red onions on the drug lord’s steak to the “little shark teeth” on the charging pit bull, Ghost’s novelistic details heighten the intensity of the wild scene. 

“Kilo”: The silliness of the sample conceit -- an old educational record about the metric system repurposed to reference cocaine -- is offset by the griminess of Ghost and guest Raekwon’s kitchen-sink drug-trade play-by-play. The Wu brethren talk about cooking, distributing, and living the life associated with their product, focusing more on vials and Pyrex than the spoils of success. As always, Ghost and Rae go together like guns and ammo.

“The Champ”: With production and acting support from Just Blaze, who impersonates both Burgess Meredith and Mr. T, Ghost reimagines Rocky III with himself as the protagonist. He lets Blaze call him out for laziness (“You ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele”) -- then lands a series of stunning lyrical combinations, like he won’t rest until all challengers are face down on the mat. The ref should’ve called the fight when Ghost rhymed “scared to step to me” with “rip they guts out like a hysterectomy.” Thanks to Ghost’s boasts and sampled brass that shines bright as a title belt, “The Champ” is impossible to listen to without throwing a few punches.

“9 Milli Bros.”: Legendary hip-hop eccentric MF DOOM fuels this Wu-Tang posse cut with a bumping soul beat from one of his instrumental albums. The gang is all here -- even the late ODB -- and while Cappadonna and Method Man give him a run for his money, Ghost trumps the latter’s Lucille Ball/Lucy Lawless reference by working in lines about Celine Dion and the Sri Lankan tsunami.

“Beauty Jackson”: Over late hip-hop polyglot and master beat maker J. Dilla’s haunting track -- built on a sample from female Philly soul trio The Three Degrees’ “Maybe” -- Ghost slows the pace and shows his sensitive side. He falls for the girl at the bus stop with the mink coat and nickel-plated perfume bottle, but when she glimpses a certain metal thing he’s packing, she hops on the bus without giving her number.

“Crackspot”: Rae and ODB co-star in this scene, which opens with buddy Woodrow the basehead unwisely sampling Ghost’s super-potent uncut crack. As Woody bleeds out on his coffee table, Ghost worries about collecting money and dodging the feds. The excitement, fear, and paranoia are all there in his delivery, while the sampled horns -- from Freda Payne’s 1977 soul tune “Master of Love” -- suggest he’s somehow found a rhythm in this life.

“R.A.G.U.”: It’s another first-rate Ghost-Rae team-up, this one soundtracked by hip-hop legend Pete Rock. The story: Rae wants to blast some kid whose face he just slapped hard enough to break his own wrist, but he stops himself, thinking the dude is related to Ghost. Turns out he’s not, and Ghost spends his verse sharing stories of the hapless screw-up. Like that one time he accidentally shot himself in the crotch. Now that Rae’s no longer feeling Glock-blocked, it’s probably open season on the punk.

"Whip You With a Strap": Now that he’s grown up and his welts have healed, Ghost appreciates the beatings his mother used to throw his way. "Despite the alcohol, I had a great old mama," he raps to start the second verse, matching the wistful mood of Dilla's custom beat. Yesterday's whoopings made him the man he is today.

"Back Like That": All's fair in love and war, with some exceptions. For instance, when a guy cheats on his girl, as Ghost has, the wronged woman doesn't have the right to mess around with some dude her man’s beefing with. "You don't get a n--- back like that," Ne-Yo affirms in the chorus, adding new-school suavity to what's otherwise a fairly retro track. Ghost is so pissed he tells the girl to laser off the tattoo of his Theodore Unit crew she’d gotten on her back.

“Be Easy”: Like “The Champ” cleansed of its gym stench, this Pete Rock-produced banger is pure psych-up music. “Be Easy” makes you feel you can do anything, except step to Ghost. At the club, he’ll swap your glass of champagne for something yellow and bubbly you might not like. On the streets, he’ll shoot you down and sweet-talk the nurse into letting you die. “Quick to pick a honey up,” he raps in the final verse, “The flow’s Bounty.” He even makes paper towels sound cool.

“Clipse of Doom”: Before he even gets to the first verse, Ghost has to throw some Bud-sipping, capri-pants-wearing punks out of the studio. He’s pissed from the get-go, and as he goes to work over MF Doom’s bruising beat and droning rock guitar, he only gets madder. By the final 10 lines -- all of which end with a long “E” sound -- he’s unloading on the world like George W. Bush post-9/11. 

“Jellyfish”: Ghost, Cappadonna, and Trife da God worship at the feet of Dawn, LaShawn, and Jen, respectively. These ladies have it all: “Big ass, big brains, straight out the hood,” as the hook goes. So sprung are Ghost and Don that they garnish their rapping with off-key soul crooning -- something Trife wisely avoids in his short-but-sweet final verse. His girl, Jen, may not be as classy as Ghost’s diamond-loving Dawn, but the Jet Blue stewardess and part-time fashion designer comes through in the clutch. “Even at my loneliest times,” Trife raps, “you know that Jen will ride.”

“Dogs of War”: If Sly and the Family Stone’s “It’s a Family Affair” is an obvious sample for a posse cut about gangsta loyalty, Ghost and his pack come at this one with enough hunger to justify the effort. After Ghost ambushes foes from a UPS truck and gets it on with some Pamela Anderson lookalikes, he passes the mic to son Sun God, who mostly does his pops proud with colorful lines about his criminal exploits. The final three verses go to Rae (cleverly menacing), Trife (worst wedding guest ever), and Cappadonna, who name-checks Osama bin Laden for the second time on the album. 

“Barbershop”: Half skit, half song, this snip of late-album filler finds Ghost in the barber chair, the victim of a lousy trim. “You lucky we cool,” he tells the man with the clippers. “I’ma let it slide.” The peaceful vibes don’t last long, though, as the track ends with the cops raiding the place, threatening to shoot.

“Big Girl”: Over an on-the-nose sample of The Stylistics’ “You’re a Big Girl Now,” Pretty Tone goes into paternal mode, telling some coked-up girls he meets at the club to lay off the blow and go back to school. Lest anyone call him a hypocrite, Ghost reveals in the final verse that he’s trying to kick his habit, too.

“Underwater”: The opening splash prefaces a bonkers undersea adventure wherein Ghost swims with sexy mermaids, gets looks from SpongeBob’s missus, and ultimately finds enlightenment at “the world’s banginest mosque.” 

“Mama”: Fresh vocals from R&B singer Megan Rochell give this a new-school feel -- sample of David Axelrod’s 1980 tune “Marchin’” notwithstanding. Ghost never sounds as natural in 21st century mode -- he’s better with dusty soul grabs or Wu-Tang’s detuned kung-fu nightmare soundscapes -- but his tender rhyming on this big-up to struggling moms has a timeless quality. Having already played drug kingpin and heavyweight champ, Ghost ends Fishscale as a knight in shining armor. If he can’t actually fix this girl’s life, he can at least keep the Nickelodeon on for her kids.