Twenty Years Later – Ghostface Killah’s Ironman

by: Michael Shields

Twenty Years after its release, Ironman persists as an exemplification of the extraordinary talents of Ghostface Killah…

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Note: The bulk of this article was published at Across the Margin in March of 2013 in celebration of the Premium Collection: Gold Edition CD box set of Ironman.

It’s rare that a hip-hop track will incite the sort of emotion I experienced the first time I heard Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You.” Hip-hop usually gets me fired up, stimulates my to heart to race and my head to nod. Sometimes, it compels me to think in analyzation of the artist’s wordplay and thoughtful content. But it is infrequent when I am moved deeply, nearing the point of tears. That is precisely the power of “All That I Got Is You.” Thinking back I can’t recall anyone else in the genre really dropping a ballad like “All That I Got Is You,”1 a track which is an ode to Ghostface’s mother, recounting in surprising detail his life in the projects growing up. What amazes me to this day about this track is the vulnerability Ghostface displayed. I never considered that such a hard motherfucker was capable of such a soft song. Couple all this with a heartbreaking hook by Mary J. Blige and you have the makings of an all time classic song – on an all time classic album entitled Ironman.

Ironman was released October 29th, 1996. It was produced principally by The Rza2 and features a lofty range of samples from blaxploitation films of the 60’s and 70’s to classic soul albums3. Although a solo album per se, Ironman features many contributions from fellow Wu-tang alums/legends, most notably Raekwon and Cappadonna, who share the album cover with Ghostface in both face and name4. Ironman debuted at number 2 on the Billboard Top 100 charts, and on February 9th, 2004 it was triumphantly certified Platinum.

The album begins with an audio clip from the film The Education of Sonny Carson in which a thirteen year old Sonny is displaying audacious courage against a gang of older kids (“Just me and you, motherfucker, just me and you. I put trademarks around your fuckin’ eye”). Eventually young Sonny is rewarded for his bold behavior with an invitation to the gang. It is hard to not look at this opening sequence as a metaphor for the album. Ghostface, like a young Sonny Carson on the come up, was making a statement with Ironman. He had arrived as a solo artist and was demanding that all of us pay attention. Ghostface was brazenly letting the world know he had matured into a formidable force ready for the spotlight.

After the clip of Sonny standing up to the world…the beat drops as if dumped off a skyscraper. You know you are in for it immediately. “Iron Maiden” sets the tone for the album, and we are not let off the hook until the waning moments of “Marvel.” The mood of the album changes at the drop of a hat5. Rza’s beats are largely built on samples of early-70s soul such as the Jackson 5 and Delfonics, who make a guest appearance on “After the Smoke Is Clear6 but Rza also utilizes gospel choruses and piano vamps to layer the tracks, depthening the overall listening experience. Ironman is a wild ride, a bi-polar juggernaut that leaves you exasperated, doubled over with your hands on your knees trying to catch your breath, yet immediately wanting to run the entire album back again.

I have argument in my wheelhouse I profess from time to time, and mostly when under the influence that Ghostface is one of the greatest MC’s of all-time. Although I usually keep this bold idea to myself, I truly believe it. I will spare you the breadth of my argument as if you are in agreeance with this you do not require any convincing. And if Ghost isn’t your flavor you will never be behind this sort of proclamation. The fact of the matter is if you don’t get chills the moment the beat drops on “After the Smoke is Clear,” or if “Winter Warz” doesn’t make you feel fully alive, we are not always going to see eye to eye when it comes to hip-hop.

What makes Ghostface so special? Well Ghostface, from the birth of the incomparable Wu-Tang Clan unto a series of impressive and successful solo efforts, has perfected a stream of consciousness flow that also exhibits his extraordinary technical precision. It’s a full on assault, an attack on your senses. Ghostface’s powerful brand of hip-hop relentlessly pounds rhymes into your head without mercy, with bone crushing stanzas and a ruthless attitude. You have to keep up, or you will get left behind. Ghostface excels at the art of storytelling-rap that takes you on a ride. Listening to Ghostface is a visceral experience. And what’s more, the man is clever enough to lace his distinct machine-gun flow with a language that is all his own. It’s a remarkably unique style, that many try to imitate to this day, twenty years after Ironman’s release, with minimal success.

  1. I guess we could call Tribe’s “Electric Relaxation” a ballad of sorts, “Silent Treatment” by the Roots maybe, or possibly LL’s “Around the Way Girl.” I can think of a few others – none with the impact of “All That I Got Is You.” []
  2. Mitchell Diggs, Oli Grant, and D. Coles executive produced the album. []
  3. The Rza is well known for his “Bruce Lee meets Gladys Knight sound.” []
  4. Raekwon appears on 13 of the 17 tracks. []
  5. In his book The Tao of Wu producer RZA points out that Ghostface’s voice sounds noticeably different on Ironman than previous Wu-Tang releases. This is because Ironman was released following a flood that destroyed the basement studio in which those recordings were made. RZA had set up individual microphone preamps and compressors for each member, which were destroyed in the flood. Thus, the vocals on Ironman had to be recorded in a different studio with different equipment and settings, which slightly altered their sound. []
  6. On “260” Al Green’s “You Oughta Be With Me” brilliantly, creates an aching ironic counterpoint to a killer tale of brutal street justice. []

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