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Ghostface Killah
Fish Scale

I think the title of Ghostface Killah’s new album refers to a certain kind of crack cocaine, but I really don’t know. I’ve been listening to what is commonly referred to as “crack rap” for a long time, but I could hardly tell you how crack is bought and sold beyond some dudes driving down to Miami to pick up a package from “Papi.” But couldn’t you glean as much from watching “Scarface”?

My point is that it’s hard to tell the real drug dealers from the fake ones, because even rappers like 50 Cent and Young Jeezy who have certifiable criminal pasts use the same gangster-movie cliches as their pretending peers. I’m assuming Ghostface Killah really did deal drugs before he started rapping, mostly because he was one half of the album that pretty much invented crack rap, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. But unlike the Clipse or Young Jeezy, Ghostface doesn’t need to rap about selling drugs; he’s talented enough to rap about pretty much anything. On “The Mask” off DangerDoom’s The Mouse and The Mask, he rapped about the old steel mask he used to wear in the early Wu days, and on Fish Scale’s “Underwater” he raps about seeing “SpongeBob SquarePants” driving in an underwater car “bumping the Isleys.”

So it’s hard not see Fish Scale’s crack obsession as a desperate bid by Ghost to capitalize on the style he invented. During a show in New York City, the man himself said as much, bitterly telling the audience he was going to give them what they wanted. The only problem with this attitude is that Fish Scale sounds way too much like earlier Ghost efforts. The album’s first song, “Shakey Dog,” is sweaty, cinematic, and visceral, but it’s also the sort of thing Ghostface can do in his sleep. On the Just Blaze-produced “The Champ,” a man barks at Ghost that he hasn’t “been hungry since Supreme Clientele.”

But that’s not the problem; Ghostface has sounded “hungry” since his first verse on the Wu’s Return to the 36 Chambers. The problem is that the man can’t accept the fact that he’s never going to be fully embraced by a mainstream audience.

During the Wu Tang Clan’s heyday, the group’s obscure slang and kung-fu references made them the hardest of the hardcore, tough as nails but oddly arty at the same time. But since Southern rap has taken the helm, gritty, East Coast rap is now considered too dark and too weird for mainstream hip hop fans. Unlike T.I.’s new album, you can’t put Fish Scale on during a party; half of the songs don’t have choruses and raps about botched crack deals just depress people.

Despite some amazing tracks (“Shakey Dog,” “Kilo,” “R.A.G.U.,” “Clipse of Doom”), Fish Scale suffers from been here, heard that syndrome. It may be the case that Ghostface’s best bet for success is to please his devoted cult audience of old school rap fans and hipster white kids, the kind of audience that loves and appreciates his scratchy-sounding beats and weird rhymes. Like MF Doom, Ghostface has the opportunity to completely divorce himself from the mainstream of hip-hop and let his freak-flag fly.