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Fishscale

Ghostface Killah

(Def Jam)

"Old Jeezy" reinvigorates the Wu and takes dope-game rap to the woodshed on a hip-hop epic.

Addressing a new generation of "pyrex scholars" over a horn fanfare, cock-rock guitars, and a disco-gorgeous groove, the Wu-Tang Clan's greatest artist rhymes on "The Champ": "Wondering, how did y'all niggas get past me?/I been doing this [since] before Nas dropped the 'Nasty.'" The throwaway line functions as something of a shibboleth. If the hip-hop-history reference is too inside-baseball for you, then this album probably is as well. But if you're an even slightly obsessive hip-hop fan, Fishscale can feel almost overwhelming.

Dennis "Ghostface Killah" Coles has a whiny, high-pitched flow that belies his imposing build and warmth and smarts that belie his moniker and crime-grime subject matter. He's been a more consistent and durable record maker than any of the MC cohorts he debuted with on 1993's classic posse album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Utterly epic at 65 minutes, Fishscale is such a dense collection of crime stories, offbeat boasts, and exhortations ("Y'all be nice to the crackheads!"), soaring '70s soul samples, random bursts of reality (our hero opens one song kicked back at the crib watching Larry King Live), and shock-and-awe beats that a hip-hop lover can get lost in it.

The album comes at you in movements. In the first third, Ghostface proves he can spin gripping, cinematic crime tales better than any new jack while never once trying to convince you he didn't long ago rise above that world. The middle third is pure show-off: Luther Ingram-sampled endorsement of child abuse he remembers as good parenting, Willie Hutch-driven battle of the sexes, explosive Pete Rock-produced rave-up. The final third is where he plays "Old Jeezy," bringing deep-soul wisdom and moral center to a newly resurgent subgenre (coke-trade rap) desperately in need of it, including an audacious self-produced sermon to big girls who really need to clean up and straighten out and a summoning of Notorious B.I.G. from the grave.

Thirteen years later and 10 years too late, here's the best Wu-Tang album since the first. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: A

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The Hardest Way To Make an Easy Living

The Streets

(Vice/Atlantic)

Though English rapper/storyteller Mike "The Streets" Skinner is hip-hop only by association these days, no one outside of Jay-Z is more compelling simply talking over beats, and, on this third album, Skinner's self-implicating musings on materialism are a match for Kanye West. The dizzying Brit slang, near-choral choruses, and sexual decency are commercial non-starters in the States, and he knows it: "Understated is how we prefer to be/That's why I've sold three million and you've never heard of me." After a scene-specific intro opus and a follow-up grime opera, album three is an abbreviated blast of self-contained songs. There's a theme -- an insider's tour of the life of the nearly rich and not quite famous -- but this time it snakes through rather than dominates. Skinner's after-the-goldrush details are rich, funny, and self-aware, but he's even better with a tear-jerking tribute to a deceased dad. ("Memento Mori," "War of the Sexes," "Never Went to Church") -- CH

Grade: A-

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St. Elsewhere

Gnarls Barkley

(Atlantic)

When I first heard "Crazy," Gnarls Barkley's first single off St. Elsewhere, I was instantly smitten. The song features stringed orchestrations supported by a slaphappy bass line and vocals that lie somewhere between Al Green and Barry Gibb, creating a sound not heard since disco died. The song is pop dynamite. The rest of the album backs up the promise made by "Crazy," primarily because the successful pop formula and sound of the single aren't repeated. Gnarls Barkley voice box Cee-Lo (Goodie Mob) is able to croon, rap, and purr equally convincingly. Noted genre-smoosher Danger Mouse -- who so memorably combined the Beatles and Jay-Z on his bootleg Grey Album -- supplies the instrumental backbone. The result is a gooey mix of hip-hop, soul, R&B, gospel, electronica, dance, and pop. For building blocks, Danger Mouse samples Italian film scores, French library music, and obscure '70s folk rock, engineering a sound that amazes and rarely misfires. ("Just a Thought," "St. Elsewhere," "Gone Daddy Gone") -- Greg Akers

Grade: A-

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