When you think back to the first run of solo records from the members of Wu-Tang Clan, you’ve got a pretty solid list of classics. There’s Method Man’s Tical, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and GZA’s Liquid Swords. Over time, we’ve ranked these three above the likes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman. That’s not to say that these albums get undersold, but Ironman in particular seems like a lynchpin record for the Wu-Tang dynasty.
And when it came out in 1996, it was treated as such. It debuted at no. 2, it went gold in 1997, and it was generally considered a brilliant first step for Ghostface. Of course, it was released in the aftermath of Tical and Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords, and over time it has been shrouded just a bit in the shadow of those records. It’s a good start for Ghostface, maybe, but not on the same level as those other records — even though Ghostface is integral to the success of Cuban Linx, but I digress.
The thing to notice about Ironman, when listening in retrospect, is how daring it sounds. RZA is at the helm here, but this is a shift away from the dark mood pieces of Liquid Swords or the grimy street drive of Cuban Linx or the smooth growl of Tical. The beats sound light here, downright playful, and the sampling shifts from films like Shogun Assassin to blaxploitation films from the ’70s. It’s a fitting atmosphere for Ghostface Killah, far and away the most cut-loose emcee in Wu-Tang. So while we open “Iron Maiden” with Raekwon’s cold-blooded flow, it also sets up the perfect juxtaposition for Ghostface’s strident raps that feel propulsive and playful even when he’s not rapping about him and his girl running “like Luke and Laura.”
The whole album has a risky, if subtle, shift away from what we expected from Wu-Tang at the time. It may seem safe at points — “All That I Got Is You” is a duet with Mary J. Blige, and Method Man had already found success with that formula on “All I Need” — but there’s a quiet defiance to Ghostface’s approach. Method Man’s own lovelorn track was a risk on an otherwise fiery record, but Ghostface’s tribute to his mother is far more revealing. In fact, the best thing about Ironman is the vulnerability it reveals behind gangster braggadocio. “All That I Got Is You” is in stark contrast to the dangerous mysogyny of “Wildflower,” which recounts a series of revenge trysts to get back at a woman who apparently cheated on Ghost. There’s a troubling violence to the song that starts with the fiery spit with which Ghostface confesses,”Yo bitch, I fucked your friend, yeah you stank ho.” You can feel him on the verge of doing something horrible, but as the songs goes on we see this hyper-masculinity truly masking a very real heartbreak. It’s less an attack by Ghost and more a persona piece about how we react to betrayal. It’s a dangerous move in a genre with its share of gender issues, but Ghostface calls this idea out by laying it there with gruesome energy.
For all the battling and warring that goes on on this record, from “Assassination Day” to “Poisonous Darts” and so on, it’s that vulnerability from Ghostface that makes Ironman so striking. His raps are a perfect foil for the street philosophy of GZA or the untouchable sneering power of Raekwon. They reveal the tension and anxiety that makes the ground under the throne so tenuous. On “Assassination Day,” Raekwon is all about luxury, talking about “spread[ing] it out like Grey Poupon” and, fascinatingly enough, Ghostface never appears on the track. Instead, he comes back with “Poisonous Darts”, contrasting the smooth, distanced cool of the previous song with “rap fragments that come together like magnets.” That idea, of shards coming together, of the cracks between them threatening to break and rebreak, that captures Ghost’s approach perfectly.
Sure, Ironman may seem uneven — it’s tempo and tone don’t really change over an hour of playing time — which may keep it from that Cuban Linx classic status, it may be more important to the Wu legacy in the end. It lead Ghostface to the nearly perfect sophomore record Supreme Clientele and, later (ignoring curios like Bulletproof Wallets) other great albums like The Pretty Toney Album and Fishscale. Meanwhile, we got Wu-Tang Forever from the entire Clan in 1997, but after that first run of albums, the solo work got watered down. It was Ghostface’s work that kept the ship afloat as Raekwon struggled through Immobilarity and RZA tried out the ill-fated Bobby Digital persona.
There’s a reason Enter the 36 Chambers opens with a verse from Ghostface. His is the heart that beats most furiously, his voice the fire that warms the group’s chilly philosophies. Ironman reminded us that Wu-Tang Clan could do more than we thought, that their sound had plenty of permutations. It solidified the breadth of their talent, but it also introduced us to the emcee in the group that would end up being the most consistent, that would keep us talking about Wu-Tang even when the group’s output got more sporadic and the solo albums mediocre. There’s never been doubt about Ghostface’s heart, and Ironman is clear evidence of that. But it’s also more than that. Looking back, it’s now the start of a solo career that’s a big part of the backbone of the group, a foundation for Wu-Tang Clan to rest its reputation on. And Method Man has come back with some solid records, and Raekwon made another classic with Cuban Linx II, but (excusing that Ghostdini record) Ghostface never left and just got better. A man made of iron indeed. Solid all the way through.
Ghostface’s new album, Twelve Reasons to Die, is out Nov. 20.