Happy 20th Anniversary to Ghostface Killah’s debut album Ironman, originally released October 29, 1996.
Earlier this year, word leaked that the Wu-Tang Clan was getting together for another reunion album. It was barely a year and a half after releasing their “final” album, A Better Tomorrow, but it wasn’t really a surprise. When most artists say that they’re releasing their “final” album, what they mostly mean is it’s their “final album until they feel like recording another one.”
The big difference this time around was that RZA, the group’s architect and largely the driving force over the Shao-Lin super-group’s previous six albums, was handing the reins over to one Dennis Coles aka Ghostface Killah.
“RZA put the ball in my hand,” he told HipHopDx shortly after the album was announced. “He said ‘Yo, I want you to do it,’ and I been wanting to do it.”
The news didn’t really shock anyone. Over the last two decades, Ghostface has been the Wu-Tang’s most consistent and prolific solo artist. He has released 12 or 13 solo albums, depending on how you count. He can make a legitimate argument for being one of the best solo artists of the ‘00s. But if you think back to a time before the Wu-Tang became a phenomenon, it’s kind of shocking to see how far Ghostface a.k.a. Tony Starks a.k.a. Big Ghost a.k.a. Grandpa Ghost has come.
After Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) dropped 23 years ago, if you had ranked all eight/nine Wu-Tang MCs in terms of visibility and potential solo stardom, Ghostface arguably would have fallen somewhere in the latter half. He was comfortably behind the soon-to-be superstars like Method Man, GZA, Raekwon, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He was also solidly behind the group’s workhorse Inspectah Deck/Rebel INS, as well as the previously mentioned RZA. About the only members you could have placed him ahead of were U-God, who kicked a total of 12 bars on the album, and Masta Killa, who only appeared on one song.
And that was a fair ranking for Ghost back in 1993. He had a sincere verse on “Can It All Be So Simple” and a solid 16-bar banger on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin,’” but his other contributions to Enter the 36 Chambers aired on the side of forgettable. Back then, he was mostly known as the guy who rocked a stocking-cap over his face in the group’s videos and photo shoots. There were also whispers that he was the bank behind the group, allegedly running guns to help fund their musical endeavors.
However, someone put the battery in Ghostface’s back in 1995, and he dropped a super-amped and superior verse on “Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane)” from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s debut LP Return to The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. He then famously played co-pilot to Raekwon on the Chef’s classic debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.... The album’s tone showed a shift from Wu-Tang’s kung-fu flick influenced songs to more of a gangster/Mafioso feel. Raekwon took the alter-ego of Lex Diamonds while Ghostface Killah transformed into Tony Starks, with the two creating a new-era “EPMD if they were in the Corleone family”-esque duo. Ghostface delivered a show-stealing performance, appearing on eleven of the album’s eighteen tracks, including a pimp-i-fied solo track called “Wisdom Body.”
All of this led to 1996’s Ironman, Ghost’s first solo album and a towering achievement for hip-hop’s Tony Starks and the Wu-Tang collective in general. Released 20 years ago this week, the album was a reminder of why the Wu-Tang Clan seemed poised for complete domination of the hip-hop world for years to come.
Ironman was the last album of its kind, the final solo album by a member of the Clan produced almost entirely by RZA. It’s not clear whether it was one of the albums which, according to legend, RZA put together for each member of the Clan years in advance, before the basement of the Wu-Tang Mansion flooded, destroying much of RZA’s meticulously curated beats. It’s also unclear exactly how many times the basement flooded, each time destroying RZA’s work.
What is clear is that Ironman was the final Wu-Tang solo album to incorporate the group’s initial trademark style. It’s filled with dusty loops flipped by RZA from the Stax & Hi Records vaults, excerpts from obscure Kung-Fu flicks, and frequent samples from a film that helps provide the album with its overall theme. In this case, RZA and Ghostface chose a pair of films: the relatively obscure 1974 film The Education of Sonny Carson, a biography of the controversial activist who learned to leave the street life and work towards more positive goals, and The Usual Suspects, a tale of a faceless criminal mastermind and assassin who meticulously destroys his enemies with impunity.
On Ironman, Ghostface first demonstrates the talents that would catapult him to iconic status: odd, hyper-detailed story rhymes and soaring braggadocio coded in thick and often indecipherable Shao-Lin slang. He attacks each track by drawing from a seemingly bottomless well of crackling energy. He has a completely unique presence on the microphone and an intensity that almost defies description.
Ghost returns the favor that Raekwon paid him on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, featuring his tag-team partner in crime on twelve of the album’s nineteen tracks. Ironman brings a third member, Wu-Tang affiliate Cappadonna, into the fold as well. An early member of the Clan before doing a bid in prison, Cappadonna was first introduced to the world on Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” and “Ice Water,” and appears on five tracks on Ironman.
Ghostface seems to get the most live on Ironman rhyming over the faster tempo tracks, as they give his bent slang and phrases an even greater sense of urgency. The album hits the ground running with “Iron Maiden,” with Ghost, Raekwon and Cappadonna bumrushing the track, trading verses over a sample from Al Green’s “Gotta Find a New World.” Ghost takes the album back to Wu-Tang’s kung-fu roots with “Poisonous Darts,” a two verse track that allows Mr. Starks to flex his “water technique” with lines like, “I pull stings like, guitar strings down in Spain / I'm so hyped the jakes label God ‘crack cocaine.’”
“Daytona 500” plays like an old-school park jam, with Ghost, Rae, and Cappadonna again sharing the track while RZA gets busy on the two turntables, spinning the break of Bob James’ “Nautilus” for all three to wreck. The trio does justice to the beat, but Ghostface owns the song, bragging that he’ll “slap-box with Jesus, lick shots at Joseph.” Staten Island R&B legends Force MDs sings the track’s chorus, combing the rough with the smooth and further adding to the song’s vintage feel.
Ghostface also continues to demonstrate his adeptness at creating stories about robberies. First there’s “260,” where over a grooving loop of Al Green’s “You Ought to Be with Me,” he and Raekwon plot the home invasion of a purportedly rich drug dealer with “PAID” inscribed on his license plates. The pair bust into the apartment in the hopes of scoring stacks of money and cocaine, only to find just a “block of cheese from New Zealand.” Then on “Motherless Child,” Ghost intricately details chilling in Brooklyn’s Albee Square Mall, and subsequently robbing a wanna-be gangsta for his chain a.k.a. a “King Tut piece about the size of Lil’ Maurice.”
Like other Wu-Tang solo albums, various members of the Clan drop in on Ironman, giving the album an extended posse-cut feel. Method Man, U-God, and RZA give standout performances on “Box in Hand,” “Black Jesus,” and “After the Smoke is Clear,” respectively. “Fish” is another Ghost, Raekwon, and Cappadonna three-man tag team track, this time produced by True Master, rather than RZA. The Wu-Tang affiliate, best known for producing Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo,” creates a beat with solid, knocking drums, mid-tempo piano stabs, and soulful horn loop.
Ghostface doesn’t appear on two on the album’s tracks, but by ’96 this had become a tradition on previous Wu-Tang solo albums. Raekwon gets his own solo track early in the album with “Faster Blade,” which would fit right in on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, with Rae playing the crafty drug smuggler and Kingpin, moving weight and selling cocaine to former Washington DC mayor Marion Barry at the Clarion hotel. As dope as “Assassination Day” is, it’s a little out of place on Ironman. Even though Deck, Raekwon, RZA, and Masta Killah all turn in MVP performances, Ghost’s absence seems weird, and the song comes across like a really dope Wu-Tang Clan group track from a Wu-Tang album.
The album begins to draw to a close with Ghostface at his most heartfelt on “All That I Got is You,” a dedication to Ghost’s mother and family that pulls at every listener’s heart-strings. Ghost details his childhood growing up in abject poverty, forced to share his bed with three other siblings, as well as pluck roaches out of a box a cereal while all sharing the same spoon. But he adds how the love of his mother perseveres, holding the family together and inspiring them to live better. Mary J. Blige, who last collaborated with Wu-Tang on Method Man’s “All I Need,” contributes a beautiful solo towards the end of the track. Ghost and Mary do such a good job on their end that they cover-up the song’s sole deficiency, a nonsensical outro by Wu-Tang’s mentor Poppa Wu.
Meanwhile, on “Soul Controller,” Ghostface details his struggle escaping the Staten Island street life. Through three verses he explains the pull of the illegal life calling to him, yet still dreams of a better life beyond the one that surrounds him every day. Apparently this song was missing from later pressings of the album, due to sample clearance issues. It’s a shame, since even today, it’s not often you hear Ghostface being this introspective on record.
Ironman was the first step on Ghostface’s journey to dominance in his field. Over the next twenty years he carved out a masterful solo career, got credit for “saving” the Wu-Tang Clan in the ’00s, and became a respected elder statesman and influence to another generation of rappers. He’s had an occasional stumble over the past few years, mostly due to him phoning in a performance or two. However, he’s always stuck to what’s made him great, even if twenty years later, it’s still damn near impossible to decipher what exactly he’s talking about.