The Anniversary

Ironman Turns 20

Maybe 10 years ago, I sat down to interview Method Man, during a point where he was on a career downturn, about to leave his longtime Def Jam home and unsure how he could get people to properly respect the work he was doing. This was around the same time his fellow Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah released the critical favorite Fishscale, which essentially made Ghostface the last musically relevant member of the group. Method Man seemed a bit confused about that, like he wasn’t sure how that had happened, how Ghost had passed him by. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Meth was supposed to be the star. That’s how things started out. Ghost had begun his career rapping under a mask. Meth had been the only Wu-Tang member to get a whole track to himself on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). He was the anointed one, until he wasn’t. The whole thing reminded me of the scene in the 1995 rap documentary The Show where Ghost and U-God took Meth to task for spotlight-hogging.

It took a long time, but that spotlight shifted. Method Man was the best rap star in the group, but he wasn’t the best rapper. And in the insular, cerebral, noisy, chaotic sonic universe that RZA created for the group, stardom turned out to be almost beside the point. Method Man had been the Clan member to guest on Biggie Smalls’ Ready To Die, and his biggest hit had been Puff Daddy’s remix of “All I Need.” He made sense in a Bad Boy context. But in a Wu-Tang context, people like Raekwon and GZA were doing better work; their 1995 debuts Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Liquid Swords stand up as classics in a way that Meth’s own Tical just doesn’t. And then there was Ironman, an album that turns 20 tomorrow, the moment that Ghostface emerged from the shadows and embarked on his long journey to become the face of the group.

Ghost had always been an unstable molecule. His voice had been the first one we’d heard on 36 Chambers, possibly because RZA knew he could hit the ground running if he opened things up with Ghost’s feverish urgency. Ghost rapped like the microphone itself had somehow offended his sensibilities, like he wanted to yell it into oblivion. As dense as his lyrics could be, his voice was a trebly stab, the sort of thing that couldn’t disguise emotion even if he’d wanted to play things close. Cuban Linx had elevated Ghost to co-star status, and he and Raekwon had developed such rich and intricate mob-mythology narratives that it was almost like they had their own private language. Ghost wasn’t the type to even try to make a crossover hit. And Ironman succeeded eventually anyway, mostly because it’s a great album and because the Wu-Tang mythos had captured so many kids’ imaginations by 1996.

In some ways, the Ghost of Ironman is a dutiful Wu-Tang soldier. He’s not the only one who appears on the Ironman cover; Raekwon and new recruit Cappadonna are both on there, and their names appear in print, as well. Rae gets the first verse on the album. A couple of the songs don’t even feature Ghostface rapping on them, which seems incredible. The whole thing stays firmly within RZA’s sonic wheelhouse, all those discordant minor-key melodies and warped, broken samples. But Ghost absolutely dominates the album anyway, through sheer force of personality.

Consider “Wildflower,” the second song on the album, which opens with a couple of generic bars from a nameless female rapper. Ghost immediately interrupts in the rudest way imaginable: “Yo, bitch, I fucked your friend! Yeah, you stank ho!” Even in the mid-’90s context where nobody this side of Tipper Gore was trying to take rappers to task for misogyny, it was a bracing and brutal moment. And Ghost spends the rest of the song lovingly and describing all the ways he hates this particular woman. He’s rapping to a woman who cheated on him while he was on tour, and he spends the entire song just unloading on her: “You sneaky fuck bitch, your ways and actions told it all / I fucked you while you was bleeding, held you down in malls.” It’s about as problematic as a song can be, but Ghost’s rage and pain practically explode off of the song, and that’s what makes it compelling.

That naked emotion reappears, in considerably nobler form, on the later album tracks, where Ghost is remembering his childhood and the squalid circumstances that produced him. “All That I Got Is You,” the Mary J. Blige collab that appears near the end of the album, is an absolute gut-ripping masterpiece, a song that still gets me misty decades later. Ghost has a real writerly eye for detail, and the specific concrete things he mentions on that song just kill me: “Seven o’clock, picking roaches out the cereal box,” “Things was deep, my whole youth was sharper than cleats / Two brothers with muscular dystrophy, it killed me.” And the warmth and generosity of the song stands in sharp contrast to everything Ghost said on “Wildflower.” It’s just as passionate a song, but it’s one where he’s using the passion for good rather than evil.

That passion made Ghost stand out within the context of the group, and combined with the forceful delivery and the freakily unique verbosity that Ghost was still developing on Ironman, it’s what eventually led him to be widely regarded as the greatest rapper within the group. But Ironman isn’t an emo album; it’s not entirely concerned with the depths of Ghost’s soul. It’s also an absolute neckbreaker of a rap record, one of the richest and hardest things that RZA ever did. At this point, the Wu-Tang Clan was deep into its mindbending early run, and all the members of the group were doing everything they could do outdo one another. And you can hear all that most clearly on “Daytona 500,” one of the most perfect distilled-adrenaline rap bangers that the ’90s gave us. The beat is a careening chop of the bassline from Bob James’ eternally nasty jazz-funk classic “Nautilus” — a song that’s been sampled dozens of times, but not the part of the song that’s been sampled dozens of times. And over that spinning-out-of-control beat, Raekwon, Ghostface, and Cappadonna all went absolutely berserk, each one hitting faster and harder than the one before. (Cappadonna, I think, wins the song, but they all come off like titans.) From where I’m sitting, “Daytona 500″ is a perfect song.

And while Ironman wasn’t as influential as Cuban Linx or as insular and dense as Liquid Swords, it still remains my favorite of that initial wave of Wu-Tang solo albums. It has more fire, more naked feeling, and more melody than any of the others. (Ghost always loved R&B, and the Mary J. Blige and Force MDs appearances on Ironman foreshadow the way the Ghost of a few years later would just rap over entire ’70s soul songs, not even bothering to find instrumental versions.) The album was a minor commercial success, not the crossover that some of those other Wu-Tang albums were; it took eight years to finally go platinum. But it really showed just how completely in their zone the members of Wu-Tang were during that era.

It wouldn’t last. Ironman was the last solo album of that initial run. After that, RZA would assemble the full group for 1997’s bloated-but-amazing double album Wu-Tang Forever, only to discover that Puff Daddy and Bad Boy had inevitably taken their spot and that the world had begun to move on. There would be plenty of great Wu-Tang records after Ironman, and plenty of great Ghostface records in particular. But this would be the end of the time that they were kings of New York, bending the entire recording industry to their will. It’s a time capsule from a lost era when this particular mass of deranged, fired-up weirdos could become stars. We didn’t know how good we had it.