Ghostface Killah’s rep in November 2001 was as bulletproof as the order window at whatever chicken spot he probably visited with that woman in the “Ice Cream” video after the shoot. For some time, Ghost had almost single-handedly held down the Wu-Tang imprimatur, most recently via 2000’s widely beloved Supreme Clientele. Even if you were outside at the time, up to your eyeballs in bright-ass Iceberg sweaters, it’s easy to undervalue how pivotal Ghost was to his group’s relevancy going into Bulletproof Wallets, released 20 years ago this Saturday. Not for nothing was he sporting that championship belt in the “Cherchez La Ghost” video a year earlier.
Never mind that Ghostface doesn’t particularly like Bulletproof Wallets. In a recent interview with Wax Poetics, he told the writer David Ma, “I wasn’t too happy with Bulletproof, because RZA forgot to clear some samples on there and shit became a real distraction for me and everyone around.” He’s such a high-level conceptualist and visionary that the Bulletproof Wallets that arrived on record-store shelves two decades ago, while not as extravagant as the version he’d handed to his label, is still stellar.
Initially conceived as a seamless amalgam of psychedelic street cuts and authentic airplay staples, the Bulletproof we know and love is less hallucinatory, but it flows even more seamlessly. The syrupy “Never Be The Same” following the radical lost classic “The Sun” on the OG tracklist is a head-scratcher and had to have been the label’s decision. A bootleg favorite, “Flowers” retains much of the militant magnetism that made it an essential posse cut when it leaked months before the album’s release. It’s not the version critics fawned over when they got their advance copies of the album. But despite RZA’s 11th-hour beat switcharoo, “Flowers” deserves its, well, flowers.
The song is a bravura display of ferocious rhymes over a cinematic bells-accented track — a high-powered park jam for the peak TRL era. Wu’s legacy has always been aligned with old-school icons like the Cold Crush Brothers. And here, that classic call-and-response feel is referenced with a nimble verse from Method Man, who spits, “When that Absolut and Hennessy mix (Ultimate! Ultimate!)/ Wu shit, my whole clique (Ultimate! Ultimate!).” Ghost’s free-associative assault (“In slow motion when yo’ head hit the meter/ You lost two liters, at the same case speeder/ Peter slid through, shook ’em down for his reefer”) redeems RZA’s processed interpolation of Bob James’ immortal “Take Me To The Mardi Gras.”
The Abbott, of course, sampled James on another Ghost banger — 1996’s “Daytona 500.” He knows that generation of soak-the-labels-off-in-the-tub breakbeats naturally compliments Ghost’s tone. In a 2005 interview RZA said of his erstwhile neighbor, “He’s more high-pitched when other producers work with him. His voice should be compressed on 90 MHz and sloped down. I know that; other producers and engineers don’t know that.” That probably explains why Ghost’s manic, hair-trigger timbre is not as effective when he rhymes on synthesized tracks.
So maybe RZA was as frustrated as Ghost was when the samples didn’t clear. And while “Flowers” certainly lost some of the original version’s warped, nervous stick-up-kid edginess, it nonetheless showcases an in-his-prime Ironman lyrically besting his estimable Wu brethren.
But if it feels like the label stepped on his product, watering it down — like the work Stringer Bell forced his lieutenants to sling in season one of The Wire — Ghost makes up for that with “The Forest,” which is nothing but that uncut raw. It features some of the self-proclaimed Wally Champ’s most imaginative darts. Ghost should win an EGOT for, Stanislavski style, inhabiting Ricochet Rabbit, Tweety Bird, Elmer Fudd, Shaggy, and a slew of other Saturday morning favorites. His dramatis personae here are at James Earl Jones levels.
On the Alchemist’s moody, flutes-driven beat — a demented riff on whatever the theme music to a multiplane-camera version of Smurfs: The Lost Village might sound like — Ghost recites a Palm d’Or-worthy true-crime hagiography for the beloved basset hound, Droopy: “‘Bet you my golly, oh glory with a story to tell/ Droopy got knocked, now he Muslim in jail/ His name is Abdrul, Colorful, Snow White tattoo/ She used to send him mad flicks in Cash Rule.” His spot-on impersonation of at least one of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf (“‘What great big heat you have’/ He replied, ‘Fuck my gun I’ll eat you fast’”) would make Stella Adler proud.
“The Forest” feels magical. It reminds me of rap’s golden age, when inventive yarns like these were everywhere. You can tell Ghost is thrilled to be doing what kept him in awe as a youngster, listening to the tall tales of Slick Rick, Kool Keith, or Kool G. Rap — an era when, as RZA observed at the beginning of “Can It Be All So Simple/Intermission,” “everything was all smooth and calm and shit.”
There’s a compilation on YouTube of all the notable guests who appeared on 106 & Park from the years 2000-2006. (2001, the year Bulletproof dropped, seemed to be Lil Bow Wow in perpetuity.) There’s no indication that something as outre as “The Forest” (on Michael Jackson’s label, of all places!) would have even been possible in the era of ringtone rap, Burberry Timbs, and overpriced MCU-villain-colored beverages enjoyed at Jay-Z-name-checked nightclubs.
Even lead single “Never Be The Same” is amusingly one of one. In his review (now in the archives of that proto-Black Twitter braintrust, Okayplayer), Questlove said of the glossy, TMI-worthy hit, “The maturity and restraint of him not being the ‘bigger dick’ really challenges me to think that this is not the author of Ironman‘s ‘Wildflower.'” Not since Biggie has a rapper brought such authenticity to obvious attempts at radio airplay. On any RZA beat, lyrics like, “Brushin’ off his 88 Clarks, y’all can’t touch him/ I bet a wad on it, y’all can’t fuck with him,” would make for an instant street classic.
Of course, street cred was always just a given for Ghost and his crew. And the ruckus that came with the streets was always more or less simpatico with what happens in the bedroom. This is the same man who, after all, made such lovably problematic songs as “Wisdom Body,” which opened with, “Runnin’ the streets, you know it’s deep,” before turning an actual street holler into poetry: “Yo, what’s your name, hon? Hair wrapped up in a bun/ Your eyes sparkle just like glass in the sun.” Raw and unfiltered was always Ghost’s default, be it a love joint or a gritty crime story. That mere eerie seconds of a sad-ass Earl Klugh loop with some hard drums on top of it — complemented by Starks’ crassest pick-up lines — would have droves of women rushing to Macy’s to cop dessert-themed baby tees means that the culture 100% backed him.
Ghost knows all too well when things began to shift, though. (Recalling the making of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx — a time before Dirty jumped onstage at the Grammys and belted, “Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best” — Ghost told XXL in 2005, “The year was ’95. Hip-hop was still hip-hop, and we was going in.”) But, far from a hater, he’s always managed to adapt to the times. He’s had collabs with everyone from Mariah Carey to Miley Cyrus, all while blessing us with more than a few unabashed corner chronicles on each release.
“The Hilton” is one such gem. It’s a meticulously rendered tale straight out of central casting if the mobbed-up protagonists put all their enemies in casts. Ghost was always granular in his exposition. If it didn’t exactly improve upon Supreme Clientele, this Raekwon-assisted cut proves his knack for straightforward storytelling got sharper as he became less focused on making a psychedelic word soup out of every single bar, like he got stoned on Ayahuasca and tried to man the Soul Train Scramble Board.
”His blood fucked my white leather up/ Ten G’s down the drain,” whines Ghost. And that’s immediately followed by hyperreal descriptions of wrapping up a wounded waiter in sheets and wiping prints off a phone in a hotel suite. We probably never needed the visual of a fresh-out-the-shower Rae falling, sudsy, into GhostDeini’s lap, though. But it’s a testament to his overall mastery of narrative on Bulletproof.
Where else was there for Ghost to go at the peak of his popularity? He’d forever held down the around-the-way love joint. So “Love Session,” with its husky Ruff Endz chorus and flaccid sample (a too-much-too-soon repurposing of Case And Joe’s 1998 hit “Faded Pictures”) doesn’t add much, even if its chivalric heart is in the right place. “Sun Showers” sounds like what happens when 40-below-wearing B-boys crash the Limelight, and for that alone is noteworthy. However, the only real way to properly commemorate Bulletproof is to also talk about what’s not on it.
“The Sun” was three-odd minutes of wonder, a meditative minor masterpiece dedicated to the crown jewel of our solar system. Ghost initially wanted it to open Bulletproof, and you see why: Its high-vibrational God-degree frequency — perfectly calibrated over RZA’s drumless soul shuffle — sets an instantly redolent tone, invoking childhood, with all the bugged-out flights of fancy Ghost has interjected into his raps since the beginning of his career.
Now relegated to the over-commented annals of YouTube, “The Sun” is Ghost homing in on what was arguably the most emotionally impactful moment of his classic, “All That I Got Is You” — the part where he admits, “Sometimes I look up at the stars and analyze the sky/ And ask myself was I meant to be here, why?” — and expanding it into a cosmos-approved life hack: “If, God is my witness/ In scriptures and pictures/ The sun kiss scrumptious son, it’s nutritious.”
It’s a damn shame it’s not included here. And that RZA got high and forgot which sample he used for it is hilarious, and would be perfect for a scene in the excellent Wu series on Hulu. Bulletproof might be all about compromises. But the soul of its prodigious architect is undoubtedly Teflon.