(Today, A.R. Marks brings us his take on Ghostface Killah's debut Ironman, which was the inspiration for one of my earliest reviews that readers took issue with. And I'm sure there'll be much more of that in the future. This was originally scheduled to run before his take on Raekwon's Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, but I obviously ran with that one instead. Jot some comments down for him below.)
Ghostface Killah's first solo album, Ironman, came out at the tail end of fall in 1996, and like almost all of the Clan's best output, it was produced almost entirely by The RZA. In the Wu-Tang Manual, Bob Digi describes how he crafted Ironman specifically for the winter months: rather than blasting the music from open windows, clashing with street noise, he wanted the listener isolated in the car, analyzing the music as closely as someone who was huddled against the cold would, trying to keep their mind off of frostbite and their numb extremities.
When fans are asked to rank the best Wu-Tang Clan solo projects, Ghostface's debut is often lost in the shuffle, albeit not entirely forgotten. The grimy sounds and bold (but not overly so) experimentation of Tical, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and Liquid Swords rightfully captivated audiences, but fans seemed to be somewhat less impressed by Ironman's slick soul reworkings and less Kung Fu-oriented sound, tailored more closely to Ghostface Killah's high-pitched stream-of-consciousness lyrics than any of the broad, posse-cut-geared albums that came before. To put it simply, Ironman sounded more like a Ghost outing featuring the Clan than the group's previous projects, all of which were basically extensions of the basic Wu-Tang formula.
1. IRON MAIDEN (FEAT. RAEKWON & CAPPADONNA)
Ironman kicks off with a movie sound bite, like other Wu-Tang projects have in the past, but this one tweaks things by replacing the Kung Fu samples with dialogue from a gang-related blaxploitation film (specifically Fresh), a running theme throughout the album. The RZA's beat is nothing short of vintage Wu, with a refrain of threatening horns, siren samples, and a captivating bassline. Rae provides the jumpoff verse, followed by Ghost, and the two retain their chemistry, although this time out it becomes clearer that the latter is the star of the show. Right away the mix is cleaner here than any other Wu album thus far. Cappadonna plays cleanup, and since this was back when the future cab driver was still hungrily trying to earn his place in the group, he sounds nothing short of listenable.
2. WILDFLOWER (FEAT. SCOTTY WOTTY & JAMIE SOMMERS)
Switching things up, Ghost dips into dirty sex talk while berating his woman for being unfaithful. While RZA's beat is mesmerizing, making use of winding strings, bells and a fitting vocal sample, Ghost's lyrics are needlessly graphic. The subject matter is pretty racy; he's not exactly being cruel to this woman, just expressing his hurt feelings, but it's hard to be comfortable with the angrily sexual nature of the lyrics.
3. THE FASTER BLADE (FEAT. RAEKWON)
The beat is understated, an entertaining combination of airy xylophones and little else. Raekwon kicks a one-verse wonder all by himself, and while his contribution is a classic early Raekwon visual treat, the absence of a dynamic instrument or sample makes it hard to focus on the song. These beats were created for Ghostface Killah with his aggressive delivery in mind, and his absence here is quite noticeable.
4. 260 (FEAT. RAEKWON)
RZA brings the album into full gear for the first time, with a horn-driven marching beat that becomes the perfect background for one of Ghost and Raekwon's trademark slang-laced heist tales, one of the things that the duo does best. Rae even gets himself a bit more hyped, speeding up his delivery to make better use of the strong, visual internal rhymes he's known for. Near the end, they wrap things up nicely by alternating lines.
5. ASSASSINATION DAY (FEAT. INSPECTAH DECK, THE RZA, RAEKWON, & MASTA KILLA)
“260” bleeds seamlessly into this track, utilizing a well-placed sample from The Usual Suspects and creating a feeling of cohesion between songs that really begins to pull Ironman together. The beat starts off slow-rolling, a contrast to the previous track, but soon switches up into something much more fittingly sinister. Deck kicks things off with a great verse, the kind that Wu stans wistfully reminisce over. Bobby's understated strings and off-kilter drums are a great canvas for the varied cadences and tempos of the rappers' verses. Strangely, Ghostface is actually nowhere to be found, and a verse from him would have wrapped things up much more effectively than Masta Killa's dispirited contribution.
6. POISONOUS DARTS
And the tempo switches up yet again. This jumble of strings, horns and Kung Fu samples switch up consistently to provide some much-needed variation within the beat; the mix is low, so the details are subtle and hard to pick up on at first, but it creates a perfect platform for Ghost, and the Kung Fu samples add invaluably to the overall feel of the track. Ghostface's verses showcase his development and cement the prospect that he can hold his own on a track by himself, something not many Wu-Tang members can claim these days.
7. WINTER WARZ (FEAT. U-GOD, MASTA KILLA, CAPPADONNA, & RAEKWON)
One of my favorite tracks on the album (and in the Wu-Tang lexicon, period), the title reflects the intended winter-esque feel of the album. Over a positively captivating RZA beat concocted from a whining synthesizer, a repeating keyboard line, and a devastating bass/drum combination, U-God surprises with a certifiably insane verse; as will be confirmed later, U-God's two career-best performances reside on Ironman, and he's never sounded so good before or since. Ditto for Cappadonna, who makes his return with an incredibly drawn-out verse that had Wu fans all over actually considering that he possibly deserved a place within the Clan. It features some of his most memorable lyrics, and possibly the best of the bunch is his line, “My low-cut fade stay bushy like a porcupine / I part backs like a spine / gut you like a blunt and reconstruct your design.”
8. BOX IN HAND (FEAT. RAEKWON, METHOD MAN, & THE FORCE MDS)
Continuing his winning streak, RZA laces Ghostface with a head-nodding beat of subtle keyboard-and-piano elements, underscored by trippy scratches and vocal samples, punctuated by a winding piano line and bookended by an emotional synth line. It also features one of Method Man's best performances: on his only appearance on Ironman he blows his host and co-host out of the water.
9. FISH (FEAT. RAEKWON & CAPPADONNA)
The only song on Ironman not produced by RZA. True Master supplies a very classic-sounding instrumental, following suit with the continual use of keyboard-and-horn sample combinations on Ironman, but adding several horn/synthesizer breakdowns that fit Ghostface, Cappa and Rae like a glove. Cap's verse is instantly forgettable, but Rae manages to stand out, with Ghost rightfully taking the cake.
10. CAMAY (FEAT. RAEKWON & CAPPADONNA)
I never did like this song: in fact, it's the only song from Ironman that I really, truly dislike. The beat is plodding and disconnected, relying too heavily on a bassline that traces the too-often-sampled “Can't We Try?” by Teddy Pendergrass (for a touchstone, see the ironically titled “No Idea's Original” from Nas). Ghost, Rae and Cappa try to rescue it with slowed-down, utterly boring sex raps interspersed with a floating, bland attempt at a chorus. Even worse, this was a single, which might help to explain this album's relative lack of a warm reception among fans at the time.
11. DAYTONA 500 (FEAT. RAEKWON, CAPPADONNA, & FORCE MDS)
Now this is more like it! After a short, passable sung intro by the Force MDs' TCD Lundy (the same guy who did the intro for “Box in Hand,” which was also unnecessary and amateurish), the pace quickly picks up with a dark, driving guitar refrain punctuated by scratched drums that will stick in your head long after you've heard the song, guaranteed. Stepping up their level of energy, the Rae/Ghost/Cappa trio match the intensity of the beat with suitably focused verses that have them sounding more like the good old hardcore Wu-Tang MCs they are than almost anywhere else on this record. Even the Force MDs-provided hook is enjoyable. Two thumbs.
12. MOTHERLESS CHILD (FEAT. RAEKWON)
Another classic RZA production, which makes use of a heartrending vocal sample, interspersed synth keys, a subtle synth whine low in the mix and an ongoing humming vocal sample to haunting effect that still manages to keep the album's momentum up. After a short opening bridge from Rae, Ghost continues to shine on his own with another vivid robbery tale, with the song's vocal sample refrain highlighting his regretful frame of mind throughout all the violence.
13. BLACK JESUS (FEAT. RAEKWON, U-GOD, & POPA WU)
RZA supplies a polarized backdrop, consisting of a triumphant-sounding, chanting vocal sample alternating with a short string flourish laid over a simple bass refrain, which Raekwon rocks flawlessly. Ghost comes in to keep things going, and although he sounds less focused on this track than the last few, he maintains a tight internal rhyme structure, and plays around with his cadence and style, experimenting with the pseudo-singing-rap hybrid that he would adopt more fully later on. U-God is, surprisingly, the star of the show, dropping the other credible and uncommonly competent of his two verses on Ironman, although he fails to top his performance on “Winter Warz.”
14. AFTER THE SMOKE IS CLEAR (FEAT. RAEKWON, THE RZA, & THE DELFONICS)
The last song cuts abruptly into this one, a more stoned-out feeling track characterized only by a marching bassline and slightly off-key vocals, although it manages to sound less dissociative than “Camay.” While the three members' verses are competent, the mix makes them sound like they recorded this in a submarine, and the beat sort of kills any momentum Ironman's managed to build up thus far. Listenable, but not excellent.
15. ALL THAT I GOT IS YOU (FEAT. MARY J. BLIGE)
Dialogue samples from the film used for the album's opener are used to bring things full circle. RZA provides a decidedly R&B-influenced beat that consists of strings and soft piano keys for Ghost to reminisce wistfully about the hard times he faced growing up, while Mary J. Blige turns up to provide a hook and some low, humming ad-libs that barely register. It's emotional, but all in all, not especially captivating, although it isn't bad. This is the stepping stone that would allow Ghost to feel comfortable recording future heartfelt 70's soul-esque ballads like “Jah World” and “I Can't Go to Sleep.”
16. MARVEL (FEAT. THE RZA)
Closing the album is a much more interesting affair, created out of stoned-out combinations of keyboard beeps and winding synths, which sounds like the precursor to most of RZA's Bobby Digital output. Good, if underwhelming; it sounds like a tacked-on afterthought, but at least it's a better closer than the previous track.
(The first pressing of Ironman featured an additional song placed before “Marvel”. “The Soul Controller”, which died in the sample wars after attempting to imprison some lines from Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come”, is pretty fucking awesome and is easily one of my favorite Ghostface Killah songs of all time. You can find it online if you search for longer than ten seconds.)
FINAL THOUGHTS: Keep in mind that Ironman was the first Wu-Tang Clan solo album recorded after the tragic flooding of The RZA's basement 36 Chambers Studio, and as such the equipment, mixes, and overall atmosphere of the sessions were notably different from those for all of the group's previous projects. That difference is very apparent in the sound of Ironman, and it may be what has thrown off fans from then through now (including myself, possibly, but I stand by my original write-up). Whether that difference is a good or bad is up to the listener to decide. The project sounds fairly cut-and-paste at the top and bottom; however, once momentum picks up about three or four tracks in, it's an unstoppable Wu-Tang classic ride very nearly all the way through, at least until general interest drops off toward the end, as though Ghostface and The RZA didn't know quite how to sequence the project. As such, Ironman sounds equal parts mature evolution for the Wu as a whole, and harbinger of the loss of cohesion and trust that would eventually break down ties within the Clan.
BUY OR BURN? There was a time when I would have immediately recommended a purchase without reservation. If you have the dough, go right ahead, but if you have to choose between this and a different (and in all honesty, possibly better) album, you may want to compare the two first before you make your decision.
BEST TRACKS: “260”; “Poisonous Darts”; “Winter Warz”; “Box in Hand”; “Daytona 500”; “Motherless Child”; “Black Jesus”
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave some comments below, and for comparison's sake, here's a link to my original review.)