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In 1993, when the Wu-Tang Clan first planted its grimy iron flag in mainstream hip-hop, member Ghostface Killah wouldn’t have been anyone’s choice as the most likely to sustain a career as a stand-alone MC. He introduced himself to the world with a pair of pantyhose pulled over his head, making hoarse references to Egyptian musk and Richard Nixon and delivering vaguely coherent boasts about blowing “sparks like Waco, Texas.” The safe money was on gruff, reluctant heartthrob Method Man or slurred, slightly deranged class clown Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

But by flying slightly lower than his comrades, Ghostface also avoided downfall—staying away from both the banality that comes with overexposure and the twisted, off-the-charts quality that attracts attention but also abets self-destruction. Method Man had a successful solo musical career at one point, but now he’s better known for Right Guard ads and bit parts in HBO dramas. Ol’ Dirty has gone to that great Shaolin in the sky. And the less said about Inspectah Deck’s solo career, the better.

Ghostface co-starred on Raekwon’s impeccable 1995 concept album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, and released his own classic, Ironman, the following year, but shining cameos and a paradigmatic contribution to the second golden era of hip-hop don’t guarantee a stratospheric career—just ask Black Moon and Group Home. Even with the success of Ghost’s Supreme Clientele (2000), the lone noteworthy Wu-Tang solo sophomore effort, and 2004’s well-received The Pretty Toney Album, he never touched the commercial crossover success of Meth or quite reached the cult hero status that ODB would attain.

Fishscale, Ghostface Killah’s long-awaited new album, comes at a time when hip-hop purists have tired both of mainstream MCs with more lines in retail stores than in their rhymebooks and of unintelligible, self-important indie artists more consumed with activism than adjectives. Ghost has always been as easy in the plush palaces where Snoop and Luda reside as he is in the illuminating tunnels where Mr. Lif and MF Doom dwell, and on Fishscale, that sort of flexibility is evident on nearly every track.

Instead of expressing his suppleness by alternating between party songs and intense analysis and observation, he fuses elements from both styles. He’s all Merriam-Webster and fringe references, but he grounds things with simple themes. With every song, common experiences are expressed through complex language and long chains of thought, and Ghostface nails a type of appealing, ordinary absurdity.

On “The Champ,” a chest-thumping piece that should have been the album’s lead-in, the artist also known as Tony Starks stabs at a Just Blaze track filled with electric guitar and fight bells and drops one of the most inventive monologues on the album—all about the work he’s put into the rap game. The song contains a much-talked-about swipe at D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” and, in the aggregate, the pervasiveness of throwaway rap. But his biggest takedown of other MCs comes from untouchable lyrics addressed to no one in particular: “Who want to battle the Don?/I’m James Bond in the Octagon with two razors/Betch’all didn’t know I had a fake arm/I lost it/Wild and raw before rap, I was gettin’ it on/Took a fat nigga out in like 40 seconds/My gun get hard wit a 45 steel erection/Eagle on Kangol hat slanted coconut bounce to Morocco/Guerilla medallions like Flavor Flav clock, yo,” he rhymes.

Gibberish or loaded code waiting to be deciphered, it’s a verse that few could drop and still get their point across. It’s a perfect manifestation of Ghostface’s methodology: ultra-standard, even prosaic premise—I’m the best MC ever!—with an extraordinary, peculiar, execution.

Details that initially seem apropos of nothing manage to drive home a cohesive point—the red suede wally don’s trademark. Listening to Ghostface Killah has always been like landing in a foreign country where you don’t know the language, only to discover that somehow you understand everything being said around you. On “Underwater,” a track of wavy flutes soused with bathtub sloshes and angelic murmurs, produced by Ghost’s aesthetic A-alike, MF Doom, the scenes are abstract but paint a clear picture: “I seen rubies, diamonds, smothered under octopus/Jellyfish, sharks, saw a aqua-blue pocketbook/Pearls on the mermaid girls/Gucci belts that they rock for no reason from a different world.”

Ghost also drops in a few lines in Arabic and talks of lost underwater cities, but whether the listener chooses to focus on religious imagery or descriptions such as those of “Spongebob in the Bentley coupe bangin’ the Isleys,” the theme is tangible—he’s trapped in a surreal world, interpretation optional.

Ghostface also acts as his own translator by calling on familiar motifs and characters: people pickled by drugs, hustlers both clumsy and gentlemanly, and nervous stickup kids. “Kilo” has Starks talking about the coke trade, but he and guest star Raekwon stay away from generic hustlers’ anthems. The vivid, entangled lyricism is more long-pinky-nail sophistication than standing-on-the-corner crack-slanging. Producer MoSS’ hook is a molestation of what sounds like a Sesame Street lesson about the metric system (“All around the world today, the kilo is the measure! A kilo is 1,000 grams—easy to remember!”), a perfect jumping-off point for Starks’ yelps about “extract oil come from Cuban plants” and “Pyrex scholars.” The horns, the wah guitar, the duo’s lyrics—the whole thing does much to make you long for Raekwon’s long-rumored Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II.

Continuing in a vein tapped on Linx’s “Ice Cream” and Ironman’s “Camay,” Ghostface continues to serve up some of hip-hop’s most vivid admirations of women. He never leaves things at big tits and tight jeans: His heroines often have superpowers and magical wiles, like the badass older woman plucked straight from a ’70s sci-fi flick he pays tribute to on “Beauty Jackson”: “When she spoke her smoke floated when it left her throat/Spelled ‘Honey’ when she blew it out/It turned to water—word,” he rhymes over a track from recently deceased producer J Dilla, who mixes twinkly lounge soul with a loop of a breathy “Hiiiii” from the Three Degrees into a creamy, Coffy-inspired backdrop.

But Fishscale doesn’t always aim for the intersection of the otherworldly and the routine—it contains a handful of more commercially viable tracks, including “Whip You With a Strap” and “Shakey Dog,” that beg for a heavier rotation than the rest of the album. (Although the violent “Shakey Dog” would have to undergo an eviscerating edit to make it suitable for the airwaves.) Both songs feel like a departure from the rest of the album, but each contains just enough of Ghost’s sensibility to make it a success.

On “Whip You With a Strap,” another J Dilla creation, Ghost announces his opposition to sparing the rod and brings the language down a notch. The tone is more sentimental, along the lines of his biggest mainstream hit, “All That I Got Is You,” but he’s not dumbing down his technique for a wider audience. This is an issue piece—he’s not simply weaving an interesting story or serving up a snapshot in time; he’s trying to persuade you to spank Junior, and for that, the speak must be plain: “Nowadays kids don’t get beat/They get big treats/Fresh pair of sneaks/Punishment’s like ‘Have a seat.’”

“Shakey Dog” is a straightforward stickup caper that soars thanks to a track built around a repetitive wail, fits from a horn section, and sound effects. On Ghost’s end, there are heaps of humorous details about a leery partner who eventually proves himself and a near real-time telling of a robbery that builds excitement, even devoid of Starks’ usual strangeness. But “Back Like That,” Fishscale’s lead single and its weakest moment, while a failure at embodying Ghostface’s style, could well be the album’s biggest hit. Featuring R&B up-and-comer Ne-Yo, the track tells the story of Ghost’s fictional girlfriend getting with one of his enemies as payback for his own philandering. By some contorted moral reasoning, Ghost finds this particularly foul, and the middling, midtempo soul track and singing come off as Def Jam–mandated.

The stultifying track serves a clear purpose—to freshen up the image of the 35-year-old rapper by pairing him with a younger, more chart-minded commodity and stripping him of his irreverence. Still, there seems to be a less sinister strategy at work as well, one more in keeping with Ghostface’s desire to exist in different musical spheres: Hook the general public with a watered-down product, and perhaps you can convince it to sample something a little more dope. CP