Real thugs never die. Unfortunately, they also have trouble staying creative. Ghostface Killah's newest album, Fishscale, is yet another record to emerge from Wu-Tang's prolific machinery. While still a solid record, Fishscale lacks the explosiveness of previous Wu-Tang albums. And although the Killah sports an underdog champ's reputation, he fails to take us anywhere artistically. What's left is a grimy street sound -- a dependency that ultimately goes stale in the face of mediocre production.

Wu-Tang Clan's solo projects have always been a bit suspect, as much of the group's reputation lies in its gritty and unorthodox tag-team approach, with the group's eight former members feeding off each other with high energy and short verse flows. Still, mounted atop typically simple yet dirty production, Ghostface mostly manages to hold it down. The album is sprinkled if not loaded with head-nodders, and Ghostface is, as always, plenty respectable on the mic. However, the inclusion of seven skits breaks up the flow of the album, and although at times amusing (a woman's three-year-old son tells GK to eat a dick), they're mostly just annoying. Ironically, the reliance on skits to ease transitions between tracks highlights rather than covers up the weak ties of an album.

One department that suffers is Ghostface's flow, which gets into high gear on the first track, "Shakey Dog," and never slows down. Although it's solid, his energy at times seems manufactured, and its prevalence waters down its power. Slower, R&B-fused tracks fail to deliver, and though GK's storytelling abilities are in form on "Beauty Jackson" and "Whip You With a Strap," his topics are neither jaw-dropping nor particularly imaginative. Guest appearances work against the repetition, with Wu-Tang-er Raekwon dropping by for some of the album's stronger tracks, including a bona fide Wu-Tang-like anthem, "9 Milli Bros." For the diehard hip-hop heads, a posthumous Notorious B.I.G. sample drops by for the bonus track.

Meanwhile, the beats, although carrying traces of Wu-Tang's trademark sound, are nothing to call home to the suburbs about. The production is sparse on tracks even when big in sound, and tends to drone in a not-wholly-irritating-but-still-kinda-irritating sort of way.

Still, the album is not without its successes. "Big Girl" mounts GK's flow over an old, Temptations-style slow jam, and the contrast is striking. "Be Easy" and "Jellyfish" are wholly worthwhile, and Ghostface, even when not entirely on point, can still stake out a claim to relative superiority. Fishscale isn't his best work, but does make it clear that until they have to, Ghostface and Wu-Tang aren't stepping down from their perch in the hip-hop hierarchy.


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