“You ain’t been hungry since ‘Supreme Clientele’!” a gruff “Rocky”-esque coach challenges Ghostface Killah on the Wu-Tang alumnus’ new album “Fishscale.” Indeed, since 2000’s classic “Clientele,” Ghostface’s lackluster solo efforts have left many wondering whether the sometimes surreal MC still has the skill and desire to rescue his legacy.

Fans of the now 35-year-old rapper needn’t have worried. With the year one-quarter over, Ghostface has delivered the first real contender for best album of 2006. From start to finish, the spectacular “Fishscale” is twice as clever and accomplished as anything else released this year. From the improvisational “So there I was …” drug-trade storytelling to the gloriously fun Wu-Tang reunion track to the refreshing dearth of poppy hooks, “Fishscale” is the most exciting New York City rap record in years.

It’s not that Ghostface is unaware of his laudable return to form. On “The Champ,” over as rocking a 70s bass-and-horns beat as Just Blaze has ever produced (and without sampling, no less!), Ghostface raps, “While y’all stuck on ‘Laffy Taffy’/ [I’m] wonderin’, ‘How did y’all niggas get past me?/ I been doin’ this before Nas dropped the Nasty.'” The track itself attests to the skill the rapper proclaims.

Primarily, however, the album focuses not on egotism but on narcotic fiction. The story begins in “Shakey Dog,” the first track after the introductory skit. With inimitable attention to detail, Ghostface launches into a finely-honed description of car rides while running drugs uptown: “Throwin’ ketchup on my fries/ Hittin’ baseball spliffs/ Backseat with my leg all stiff/ ‘Put the f–king seat up!'” The sheer number of asides and bits of dialogue is, frankly, astounding. The soul-drenched beats, here and throughout the album, are annotated with narrative ticks like the rumbling of a car engine, further entrenching the album in its urban setting and drug-tale focus.

“Fishscale” succeeds not merely thanks to Ghostface’s distracted but detailed style and devotion to 70s soul, but also to his ineffably facetious demeanor. The skits, most notably the gleefully immature “Heart Street Directions” and the titular “Bad Mouth Kid” (introducing, amusingly, the nostalgia-as-Comic view bit “Whip You With a Strap”), are, frankly, hilarious, yet merge seamlessly with the album’s songs. Meanwhile, “Kilo,” one of several featuring Raekwon, is built on the faux-Schoolhouse Rock sing-song hook “All around the world today, the kilo is the measure/ A kilo is 1,000 grams, easy to remember.”

Interestingly, few other tracks have prominent hooks (the obvious exception being the stunning crossover single “Back Like That” featuring Ne-Yo of “So Sick” fame). Frequently, the tracks on “Fishscale” rely on simple backbeats and skilled rapping. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang reunion track, “9 Milli Bros.,” epitomizes this style. MF Doom of Dangerdoom fame (not, surprisingly, Wu-Tang member/producer RZA) provides the piano-driven beat for the Staten Island superstars (including the late O.D.B., whose performance, thanks to fellow members’ respect, is not exploitative in the least). Doom also produces the surreal “Underwater,” a late-album highlight featuring Spongebob rolling in a Bentley and the best aquatic-themed rap song since Hardkiss and Kool Keith’s “Abandon Ship.” Ghostface also allots two tracks for Trife and his other proteges in Theodore Unit, including “Jellyfish,” a memorable ode to each of the MCs’ respective romantic interests, each with “big ass, big brains and straight out the hood.”

The only trouble with “Fishscale” is its length. At 65 minutes, the album is shorter than many cram-as-many-tracks-as-possible rap records, but still a bit prolonged. MF Doom-produced “Clipse of Doom,” for example, is certainly more than competent, but is nevertheless overshadowed by “9 Milli Bros.” and “Underwater,” both stronger and more essential efforts. In addition, “Dogs of War” is the less indispensable of the two tracks featuring Theodore Unit. These two tracks are certainly excellent, but are overshadowed by other album tracks. Their exclusion would have made for a more concise, perhaps perfect album. But Ghostface can hardly be faulted for a slightly overlong masterpiece, though, especially since he succeeds even at a duet with the Notorious B.I.G. (closing track “Three Bricks”). With the marvelously witty “Fishscale,” Ghostface has put himself, the Wu-Tang Clan, Staten Island and even New York City back on top of the rap game, and created some of the best music in years.