Never Heard of Any Big Droughts: Appreciating Ghostface Killah’s ‘Fishscale’ 10 Years...

Never Heard of Any Big Droughts: Appreciating Ghostface Killah’s ‘Fishscale’ 10 Years Later

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In hindsight, Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale wasn’t a comeback at all. When kids in 2026 start digging through his catalog, they’re going to be floored at the consistency: Ironman invented a new language, Supreme Clientele is the masterpiece. Bulletproof Wallets was hampered in its time by sample clearance issues, but all the necessary pieces are floating out there in the digital ether. Even Pretty Toney holds up—loose, soulful, fun. So why, in 2006, was there such a chip on Starks’ shoulder? Why was Just Blaze doing the fake Rocky monologues? Who was jumping out of UPS trucks? Who thought Ghost was washed up?

The short answer is: nearly everyone. And it wasn’t just 13-year veterans who were on the chopping block: 2006 was the year Nas dropped Hip Hop Is Dead, and provocative though it was meant to be, the title didn’t meet a lot of resistance in New York. The truth is that Atlanta and the South writ large had been wrestling rap fans’ attention away from the coasts for most of the ‘90s, but by 2006 the boroughs had more or less been pushed out of the frame.

Snap music had fully taken hold; Jeezy was a bona fide star; T.I. was more or less rap’s commercial high-water mark. Lil Wayne was rapidly becoming the best rapper alive. And despite being stuck on the shelf at Jive, The Clipse precipitated—or at least were the chief beneficiaries of—the critical sea change that discarded turn-of-the-century indie rap in favor of anything laced with coke. Basically, it was no country for old rappers, which Ghost was considered, even a decade ago. Veterans making familiar hip-hop were either stodgy and reactionary, or painted that way by fans and critics—unless you were Common and had Kanye West on your side.

But 2006 was unpredictable in just about every way. The Clipse hit their creative apex with the long-delayed Hell Hath No Fury. Wayne sucked all the oxygen out of the room with Dedication 2 and the singles from Like Father, Like Son. The highest first week sales tally for a rap record was for Kingdom Come, Jay Z’s comeback album that was widely disowned by fans, and eventually by its creator. J. Dilla’s Donuts was bronzed immediately following his tragic death in February. At the end of summer, The Roots and Lupe Fiasco would lead a coffee shop renaissance of sorts with Game Theory and Food & Liquor, respectively. The ground was shifting, and almost no one was looking for a blockbuster from someone who debuted the same year Bill Clinton took office. In other words, it was perfect timing.

The first hint was just a warning shot. “Be Easy” trickled out through the mixtape circuit in the fall of 2005. It was produced by Pete Rock, which was sure to satisfy the base, and it featured Trife da God, Ghost’s protégé from Theodore Unit. The two would put out a joint album, Put It on the Line, that November. Trife’s name in the credits certainly wasn’t going to help the record chart—it didn’t—but the song’s real purpose was to serve as a classicist qualifier on what came next: the Def Jam special, a street rapper shoehorned onto a syrupy R&B number.

Ghost has always been at or near his best on songs that could be ripped straight from his parents’ record collection. ‘Back Like That’ likely would have been a trainwreck in any other hands.

Of course, Ghost has always been at or near his best on songs that could be ripped straight from his parents’ record collection. “Back Like That” likely would have been a trainwreck in any other hands: Ne-Yo, in his first official appearance as a featured artist, was repurposing lyrics from The Blueprint for a hook in a way that stripped them of their self-effacing charm. Remember, on “Song Cry,” Jay flips things on him: “I was just fucking them girls, I was gon’ get right back.” But for Ghost, it’s as simple as buying in—from the opening ad-libs, he’s threatening to cut off his ex’s finger if she won’t give up the ring willingly.

He contemplates burning her car, but settles for deploying his “girl cousins”; he raps, “In the summertime I broke his jaw/Had to do it to him quick, old-fashioned, in the back of the mall,” as if he were being forced to go to the DMV. It’s exactly the kind of master class in pettiness that you’d expect from the Wallabee god. The Kanye-assisted remix that would come later in the year was a victory lap, the rare crossover attempt that wasn’t dead on arrival.

And yet both those songs acted as misdirection. When you rip the plastic off Fishscale, you barely have time to inhale before a British producer named Lewis Parker throws you into a cramped cab weaving through uptown traffic. “Shakey Dog” is built around a sample of a French love song, but it takes place between a Harlem fish and chips spot and a nearby apartment that becomes the scene of a half-botched robbery. Nowhere on Fishscale is Ghost as free-associative as on Supreme Clientele, but the warped syntax is there: “Wintertime, bubble goose, goose, clouds of smoke.”

The plot points are these: Ghost and an accomplice, Frank, plan to stage a fake robbery to get inside their targets’ apartment. Once there, they need to ransack the place—Frank takes the drugs, Ghost the money. They split up, meet back at the Marriott and split the profits. Only that’s not what happens: Frank is jumpy, hiding nervously behind Ghost, and ends up being overpowered by someone inside. Meanwhile, Ghost is laid out on the floor, dead meat for a pit bull “with the little shark’s teeth.” It ends in medias res, promising a sequel that never comes on the album.

But “Shakey Dog” isn’t about the robbery. It’s about the tartar sauce he spills on the ugly Jay Z-branded Reeboks; it’s about how stiff his legs get in the back of the cab. It’s about the old lady in the hallway who flew to South America to skirt the feds when she killed someone at a wedding. It’s about the “rum, fried plantains, and rice/Big round onions on a T-bone steak” that’s being passed around behind the door while the marks watch Sanford and Son reruns. It’s about all those details stacked precariously on top of one another, until you’re fully immersed in a Technicolor cartoon world less than five minutes after you hit play on the album. And then the fun really starts.

As beautifully disorienting as ‘Shakey Dog’ was and is, the record was clearly put together with what fans expected of the Wu-Tang legend in mind.

It could be argued that Fishscale was the first Ghostface album that showed its hand so readily. As beautifully disorienting as “Shakey Dog” was and is, the record was clearly put together with what fans expected of the Wu-Tang legend in mind. So there was the requisite crack talk (“Kilo,” “Crack Spot,” “R.A.G.U.”), the somber personal asides (“Momma”), even a disappointingly half-baked Wu reunion (“9 Milli Bros”).

Thankfully, he commits with the same vigor that made “Back Like That” a surprise success. “Kilo,” one of five songs that feature Raekwon, hinges on a fake educational jingle about the metric system, and ends with an extended bridge about, well, “retail packaging.” There’s also an ad-lib track dedicated entirely to sniffling, dreams of fucking Catwoman, and a sing-song “You’ll never catch the kid going hand-to-hand.” “R.A.G.U.” is a Scorsesean deconstruction of a single scene, where a foot soldier shoots himself in the genitals; “Whip You With a Strap,” with a beat that Dilla earmarked for Ghost on Donuts, turns the classic childhood reminiscence into a love letter to corporal punishment.

Fishscale is a ‘90s throwback in its structure, at least on the surface. Clocking in over an hour long, with 24 tracks, wasn’t en vogue at the time; neither was pulling your gang of protégés along for the ride. But Trife popping up on three consecutive songs feels different when one is a Pete Rock beat and the other two are furnished by MF DOOM. Bloated back halves are usually rounded out with rote filler, but Ghost uses the opportunity to chronicle—on “Barbershop,” in excruciating detail—a bad haircut, giving it the stakes normally reserved for, well, the botched robbery from “Shakey Dog.”

A third MF DOOM beat is fashioned into “Underwater,” which might encapsulate the spirit of Fishscale better than any of the album’s other songs. It wastes no time diving into the absurd: “Yo, I’m underwater, I see a pink door with a crystal handle/So I keep swimming.” The mermaids “with Halle Berry haircuts” lead him through their world, full of Gucci belts and “jellyfish sharks” and Spongebob in the Bentley coupe, banging the Isleys. The journey ends at “the world’s banginest mosque.” “It seems unbelievable, but then you think back to how bizarre the version of Manhattan that Ghost rendered on the opening song was, and maybe this is just how he experiences the universe. It’s his world, and we’re just drowning in it.

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