If you don’t, you could wind up in Jay-Z’s predicament. He began his career with Reasonable Doubt, a precursor to today’s coke concept albums, and eventually parlayed his gains into a seat at the corporate table. That makes him the Stringer Bell of hip-hop—the arch-capitalist kingpin who was trying to branch off into real estate when he was assassinated. Unable to credibly sustain the fantasy of criminality, Jay is left to venture tentatively into almost virgin hip-hop territory—adulthood—on his patchy comeback, Kingdom Come.
But maybe there’s another way. Ghostface Killah practically invented the crack rock opera ten years ago with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, a collaboration with Raekwon. He has a new album of outtakes, More Fish, and it’s pretty good, but this spring’s Fishscale has the air of a godfather returning to show the new kids how it’s done. Ghostface doesn’t shrink from gangster realism—you could practically set up your own crack factory after listening to “Kilo.” But it’s impossible to hear the album as a documentary. There is surrealism, as in “Underwater,” in which Ghostface, possibly in a drug-induced haze, swims through a fish tank: “I seen rubies, diamonds, smothered under octopus / Jellyfish sharks soar, aquaproof pocketbook.” There is skeptical wisdom in lines like “Tell your crew to be easy, niggaz run around / With them fake frowns, sell ’em on eBay.” And there is Tony Starks, a superheroish alter-ego whom Ghostface introduced on Cuban Linx and plays to this day.
Ghostface’s willingness to play, to admit that this is fiction, frees him up to invent himself as that romantic figure, the gangster with a code. So in terms of The Wire, he’s Omar, the gay gunman who robs drug dealers. Fishscale is the most ambiguous of coke albums, which is another way of saying Ghost gets to have it both ways: On “Big Girl,” for instance, he lectures young women on the perils of cocaine even as he supplies it to them. The listener gets to have it both ways, too, taking pleasure in tales of drug violence without having to acknowledge that they might be, you know, real.