GHOSTFACE KILLAH Fishscale (Def Jam)

Given the declining quality of late period Wu-Tang Clan albums who’d be placing bets on a solo work by one of their number offering much in the way of entertainment value? Perhaps surprisingly, “Fishscale” is really good, like a street level “Godfather” movie for the ears, a drug-dealing, gun-wielding existence squeezed through a dazzling panorama of high calibre rhymes and sweet 70s soul samples (the catalogues of The Delfonics, The Three Degrees, Freda Payne and The Stylistics all being ransacked). And although many of the domain-specific references sailed right over this listener’s head (Wikipedia reveals, for example, that the title celebrates a particularly potent variety of cocaine), enough filters through to get some kind of handle on the bloody, illicit proceedings.

Amidst all the inevitable gangsta braggadocio there are moments of vulnerability and even tenderness that make “Fishscale” all the more remarkable. (The filthy skit “Heart Street Directions” is emphatically not one of them.) He doesn’t get the lady’s phone number on “Beauty Jackson”; “Whip You With A Strap” isn’t about what you just thought of, but rather an examination of child rearing techniques - prompted by a tirade of potty-mouthed abuse from a lady friend’s infant son, Ghostface waxes lyrical about a simpler time when corporal punishment kept him on the straight and narrow. “Momma” might be the most unexpected moment here, a complex and intelligent paean to matriarchy (well, sorta), and a call for female empowerment sneaks in, under fairly heavy cover, admittedly, to “Big Girl”, a slow, deep wallow built on its near namesake Stylistics sample. For me, the album peaks on “Back Like That”; although I can’t banish the suspicion that there’s something chokingly nasty about its storyline, the delicious, maddeningly addictive music and fabulous, soulful chorus vocals take it higher. In fact, the album’s only significant misstep is the bonus track “Three Bricks”, featuring The Notorious B.I.G. (whose continual flow of new material nearly a decade after his murder brings to mind the sickly peasant’s protestations in “Monty Python And The Holy Grail”: “I’m not dead! I feel happy! I want to go for a walk!”) and Raekwon is bluff, bludgeoning gangsta rap that drags the record down in its closing moments. Otherwise, though, “Fishscale” is a shockingly entertaining work.

Wu-Tang Clan