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Ghostface Killah's "Ironman": Twenty Years Later - Chris "Preach" Smith

If there was ever an album cover that proved to be
prophetic for an artist, it would have to be Ghostface
Killah’s 1996 debut, Ironman. It was another stellar
output from the Wu-Tang Clan as they were at the
pinnacle of rap music, and one that began Ghostface’s
current run as one of rap’s strongest and prolific MC’s.

I remember running all over Long Island at this time
thanks to college and seeing the iconic poster with
Rae, Ghost and Cappadonna EVERYWHERE. Dorm rooms.
Mall stores. Construction site walls. And when the 
album finally dropped? Man. I recall playing that whole
CD at least twice the day I got it. It was one of those
albums that literally went with everything you did, a
day-to-day soundtrack that spoke to every fiber of your
being. Twenty years later, I see Ironman now as a
coming-of-age album - one where every emotion is
put up for display.

Ironman was groundbreaking for the vulnerability that
was intertwined with the swagger of the Staten Island
rapper in his lyrics. You get that sense the moment the
album begins with “Iron Maiden” and the dialogue sample
from The Education Of Sonny Carson, a Blaxploitation
flick I hadn’t even seen until this dropped. The horns on
the track behind Rae and Ghost’s effortless rhyming made
this a track that made you want to do 90 in an Audi on
the Belt Parkway. Cappadonna made his first forays here
as well, falling in with the established Wu tradition of
generous guest spots. The grittiness was established,
and then further bolstered by “Wildflower”. This track
is a snarling breakup song that veers into comical territory
with lyrics that are bugged out as hell - but something
you could see your boy saying even though he and you
don’t want to admit it. Women were NOT feeling that
track whatsoever - one cat I knew actually would play
that for a girl as soon as she walked into his dorm room
as a wink to others. But then, Ghostface would display
a romantic side worthy of WBLS’ “Quiet Storm” with the
sultry “Camay”. The beat on that track? Perfect backdrop
with the snare and the glasses clinking just as you would
imagine at a smoky bar. I’ve written about this track before,
and the grown and sexy vibe it evokes. Plus the quotable
factor? “Baked macaroni/turkey wings/a n***a starvin”
still ranks among one of the best Ghost lines ever out of
his verse.  

Ironman also contains one of rap’s greatest bangers, in
“Daytona 500”. The expert flip of Bob James to craft a
beat that is quintessential Wu could only be done here
by The Abbot. The fierce lyricism by Ghost, Rae & Cappa
is still thrilling - a line like  “I slapbox with Jesus/lick shots
at Joseph” being one of many. “Box In Hand”? Banger.
“Fish” is Wu Gambino glory at its finest, something that
one would imagine as the backing beat behind a shady
deal being arranged on a palatial terrace in Peruvian 

But as you get through the midway point of the album,
you find Ghostface truly shedding the untouchable persona
to reveal a truly reflective soul. No track personifies that better
than “All That I Got Is You.” Let me tell you something -
Ghostface reminiscing about the hard times growing up, as
Mary J. Blige sings a stirring refrain…if you don’t feel that
tug at your heartstrings, I may have to look at you sideways.
It’s an unexpected zone of realness mixed in with the songs
centered on that hustling lifestyle.

The sequencing of songs on Ironman makes the album a real
gritty masterpiece, almost like a Donald Goines novel turned
into an audiobook. There’s noir elements, confidence, soul
stylings thanks to The Delfonics and the Force MDs. There’s
also more of an introduction to the Nation of Gods and Earths
sprinkled throughout. Ghostface has spoken of this album as
it being darker than he wanted due to his personal struggles
with the street life and finding out that he had diabetes at the
age of 26. His voice sounds different - partly due to the different
vocal compressors The RZA had to rely on in the wake of a
flood wrecking his basement studio, and partly due to these
issues weighing on him. But in expressing his lyricism that way,
Ghostface Killah became a beloved figure in rap. Much like the
Marvel comicbook hero he got his nickname from, Ghost made
certain to let you know that underneath the iron was true heart,
in all of its complexity despite the surface of swagger. It’s why
Ironman reigns supreme as one of his greatest efforts. And how
a rapper who took the name of a martial arts villain began to
pave a heroic career in the rap game.  


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