Despite rarely being mentioned amid “best rappers alive” rumblings, Ghostface has yet to release anything but acclaimed hip-hop since his 1996 solo debut, Ironman. Even when Wu-Tang releases started failing to find an audience, Ghost put the Clan on his back and kept the crew relevant with 2000’s seminal disc Supreme Clientele. Possessing a unique pedigree of prose (i.e. “Ayo, this rappin’s like ziti, facin’ me real TV/Crash at high speeds, strawberry kiwi”) and unbridled lyrical passion, he is the reigning king of consistency. Inexplicably, though, the Staten Islander’s tunes tend to excite critics more than consumers. After treading more accessible waters with 2004’s kinder and gentler disc, The Pretty Toney Album, Starks takes it back to his Killah roots with his fifth solo platter, Fishscale.

Clan connoisseurs will find comfort in “9 Milli Bros.,” a colossal posse cut featuring all of the Clansmen—including ODB and the return of Ghost’s longtime partner in rhyme Raekwon, who appears four times here as opposed to not at all last time around. The duo rekindles that classic Cuban Linx chemistry on the cocaine instructional “Kilo” and “R.A.G.U.,” an intense crime saga heightened by chilling strings and bells. Bullet-ridden narratives continue on the captivating “Shakey Dog,” where Ghost stages a botched heist over Lewis Parker’s horn-heavy Blaxploitation soundtrack with scene-setting detail: “Three fuckin’ maricones on the couch, watching Sanford & Son/Passing they rum, fried plantains and rice/Big rounds of onions on the T-bone steak/My stomach growling, Yo, I want some!”

Surprisingly, Ghost’s return to a darker sound doesn’t include the RZA. In his place is a crop of subterranean track masters. The most prominent being underground poster boy MF Doom, whose avant-garde replacement of Bobby Digital’s sonic grit is triumphant. Collaborating on five cuts, Ghost and Doom mesh like dust brothers from another. Metal Face’s hypnotic flutes and wave sound effects anchor “Underwater,” Tony’s bugged-out aquatic fantasy, complete with “mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts” and “SpongeBob in the Bentley coupé, banging the Isleys.” Their combined excellence continues on the acid-trip symphony “Charlie Brown” and the body-dropping “Clips of Doom,” a murder-gram ripe with piercing electric guitars and Ghost’s vivid violence: “Put two cutter mirrors replacing the eyes/So when the cops come they’ll see themselves, they all gonna die.”

Lightening up for a moment, Toney turns his attention toward estrogen for “Big Girl,” where the Pretty One sweet-talks shorties with his signature peculiarity. Later he waxes parental atop J Dilla’s subdued guitar lift on “Strap,” a candid reflection about today’s wayward parental discipline. “Nowadays kids don’t get beat/They get big treats, fresh pair of sneaks/Punishments is like, Here, have a seat.”
Unfortunately, Ghost Deini succumbs to commercial pressure. Amid the shadowy production scope of the album, the love-gone-bad R&B number “Back Like That” featuring Ne-Yo feels out of place. Equally confusing is the head-scratching “3 Bricks,” which awkwardly combines Ghost and Rae with Notorious B.I.G.’s “Somebody’s Gotta Die” vocals. Produced by Cool & Dre, the track seems better suited for Biggie’s slapdash Duets.
With a few forced collaborations being its only flaw, Fishscale is Ghost’s most addictive dosage post Supreme Clientele. Packed with vivid street tales, comic relief and straight spittin’, the album continues his standard of excellence. Now if only consistency equaled power. If it did, Ghostface would be king. —MATT BARONE