The Ironman Adds Another Page to the Wu-Tang Manual

Thirteen years after Wu-Tang Clan debuted with 36 Chambers, only scattered fragments of the original nine members remain. The untimely passing of ODB along with the usual difficulties that emerge when an entire group has to share the same spotlight have led to the dissolution of the pre-eminent group in hip-hop history, with Iron Flag as the final, disappointing chapter.

Ghostface Killah, however, continues to carry the Wu-Tang torch, allowing the grimy Wu sound to evolve into a more polished style, while still maintaining the originality for which Wu has always been renowned. Long-time Clan fans may initially be disappointed to see a total lack of RZA production on Killah’s Fishscale, but the deviation from his first producer is a natural result of the differing paths traveled by all nine members. In fact, the wide range of producers used provides a perfect backdrop for Killah’s usual tales of drug deals gone wrong, growing up in poverty and difficulties with the fairer sex.

Top-notch producers Just Blaze, MF Doom and the late J Dilla all grace the production credits of Fishscale, but it is the number-one soul brother Pete Rock who shines the brightest with his beats for “R.A.G.U.,” “Be Easy” and “Dogs of War.” Rock’s typical soul-based production is the perfect compliment to Killah’s passionate lyrics, and “R.A.G.U.,” which features Clan member Raekwon, stays so true to the Wu-Tang sound that the track could seamlessly be slipped into Cuban Linx.

Doom also offers his vision of the Wu sound for the 21st century with his dusty piano loop on “9 Milli Bros.,” a track featuring verses from nearly the entire Clan (the unappreciated Inspectah Deck is excluded). Unfortunately, Doom misses the mark just as much as he hits it: “Clipse of Doom” and “Jellyfish” rely on electric guitar and organ samples, respectively, that are repetitive, uninspired and simply obnoxious.

The other problem with the album is the inclusion of unnecessary skits, particularly the juvenile and rather immature “Heart Street Directions.” As a result of this superfluous material, beautifully produced tracks such as “Crack Spot” and “Barbershop,” in which Killah plays a customer whose hair is ruined by a barber more concerned with chatting than actually cutting hair, are relegated to mere 90-second spots.

These flaws, however, are few and far between — the biggest problem is that at some point the album has to stop. An album as highly anticipated as this one often disappoints due to raised expectations, but Killah not only meets these expectations, he surpasses them; it is on Fishscale that he fully realizes his potential as not just the symbolic leader of Wu-Tang, but of New York hip-hop as a whole. Killah already had a collection of solo albums worthy of any hip-hop head’s attention, but Fishscale, his fifth solo effort, should catapult Killah into the upper echelon of MCs, those whose catalogs speak for themselves. He will be remembered as one of the best.