Wu-Tang Clan made quite the first impression with their 1993 multi-platinum selling debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The album was not only a commercial success, but a critical darling, and along with Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, it would help give a boost to what was a sluggish representation coming from East Coast Hip-hop, ushering in the next wave of New York emcees (i.e., Biggie, Nas, Mobb Deep and Jay-Z). 36 Chambers would also help launch the solo careers of each of its nine members (before you hit me in the comments, I’m fully aware that Rza aka Prince Raheem and Genius had solo albums before 36 Chambers…I’m only referring to the Wu-Tang era). Method Man would strike first with Tical in November of ‘94, and 1995 would bring solo albums from Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Gza. 1996 would bring just one Wu-Tang solo release at the tail end of the year, which also happens to be the subject of today’s post. Ghostface Killah’s Ironman.
While Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was billed as a Raekwon solo album, it was really a Raekwon/Ghostface Killah collab effort, as Ghost appears on fourteen of the album’s seventeen tracks, including his very own solo joint (the bottom of the album cover even reads: “Guest starring Ghostface Killah aka Tony Starks”). Ironman would build on Cuban Linx collaborative spirit, as Ghost would not only have Raekwon as a guest star, but the unofficial tenth member of Wu-Tang, Cappadonna, would also appear on a handful of the album’s tracks. Rza would produce all but one track on Ironman (with True Master credited for the loosie) and like all the other Wu-Tang solo projects, it would be laced with heaps of cameos from the rest of the Wu-Tang members. Ironman would go on to receive positive reviews and would earn a gold plaque within three months of its release, eventually reaching platinum status.
Finally, an album that I actually bought when it came out back in ‘96. Ironman’s received plenty of play from me over the past twenty-five plus years, so this should be a fun refresher.
Iron Maiden – After a snippet taken from the seventies Blaxploitation flick, The Education of Sonny Carson plays to open up the album (which includes a heated and humorously entertaining exchange), Rza drops an adrenaline pumping cinematic backdrop complete with blaring horns that feels like it was custom made for a high-speed car chase scene in a movie. Raekwon bats first and gets off a verse full of his ill abstract Shaolin slang (“Yo, Gambino niggas, who swipe theirs, deluxe rap cavaliers, midgets who steal beer, give ‘em theirs”), followed by Ghost, who sounds flustered and frantic but still highly entertaining (shoutout to Luke, Laura and General Hospital). Then Cappadonna, who unexpectedly stole the show early the same year on the Wu posse joint from the Don’t Be A Menace Soundtrack, “Winter Warz” (more on that song in a bit), does it again, as he puts together another sharp verse to shut down and close out this song. The Rza brilliantly weaves the three verses together with more Sonny Carson soundbites and soulful filmic breaks. This may be the greatest album opening track in hip-hop history. Yeah, I said it.
Wildflower – This one begins with a snippet from another seventies Blaxploitation flick, J.D.’s Revenge (after Kung-Fu flicks, Rza’s second preferred movie genre is clearly Blaxploitation movies…and shoutout to the underappreciated, Glynn Turman), which sets the tone for the song. Rza slides our host somber Kung-Fu flick chords to angrily spit bars at his cheating woman. The song starts with Jaime Sommers (who plays the cheating girlfriend) spittin’ a few bars, before Ghost abruptly cuts her off by calling her a “bitch” and then admits to fuckin’ her friend, even providing the date the infidelity took place (February 17th, which just happens to be three days after Valentine’s Day). He spends the rest of the verse furiously calling her out her name, reminding her of how he improved her life (by introducing her to Robert De Niro flicks and teaching her to eat healthy) and explaining how bad her infidelity has hurt him (“Gave away my pussy, that shit hurt, it feel like somebody died or shot your Old Earth”). He hi-lariously ends the song by telling her “My dick’s the bomb, baby,” before leaving her on this note: “I’m God Cipher Divine, love my pussy refined, that means clean, a FDS smell with a shine.” Classic shit.
The Faster Blade – Ghost got a solo joint on Cuban Linx (see “Wisdom Body”), so it’s only right that he repays Rae with his very own record on Ironman. Rae uses the sleek mid-tempo instrumental to get off one verse filled with more slick slang that I can’t completely follow, but per usual, he makes the shit sound amazing.
260 – This one begins with another Sonny Carson soundbite, before the darkly soulful instrumental drops (I love the menacing sound of the horns) and Ghost and Rae spin a colorfully detailed story about a drug heist they pulled off in Building 260 2L in a Staten Island Housing Project. Well done, fellas.
Assassination Day – Rza cooks up a slow-rolling grimy backdrop that he, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon and Masta Killa each spit battle bars over, while Ghost runs for a quick potty break. Needless to say, his bredrin hold him down lovely while he relieves himself.
Poisonous Darts – This one starts with a vintage Rza Kung-Fu flick soundbite that his ruggedly sinister backdrop quickly joins to put the battery pack in Ghost. Our host sounds recharged and refreshed after his short break, as he spazzes out on the track with braggadocious bars and funny punchlines.
Winter Warz – As I mentioned earlier, this song was originally released on the Wayans Brothers’ hood parody movie, Don’t Be A Menace (I refuse to type out the full ridiculously long movie title). Rza provides the slick head nodding canvas (courtesy of his console), Rae takes care of hook duties, while U-God, Ghost and Masta Killa play the opening acts for Cappadonna who completely annihilates this beat and everyone that jumped on it with him. If you’ve never heard this song before, go check out Cappa’s colossal closing verse before you continue reading this post. I’ll wait.
Box In Hand – The unsung but legendary Force MD’s start this one by reinterpreting The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” then abruptly stop for no foreseen reason, before Rza drops an instrumental that sounds like something left over from the Tical sessions. Speaking of Tical, Meth stops by and joins Ghost and Rae as the three emcees truel it out over the less than spectacular instrumental. If I had to take one song off Ironman, it would definitely be this one.
Fish – This is the only track on Ironman that Rza didn’t produce. True Master gets the credit and serves up a brilliant instrumental that sounds weary, resilient and triumphant, all at the same time. Ghost sets the tone with his opening verse (“We eat fish, toss salads, and make love ballads,” and later he boasts that Primatene Mist is afraid of his lungs) and Rae and Cappa follow suit. This has always been one of my favorite songs on Ironman, mainly due to TM’s marvelous backing music.
Camay – Rae, Cappa and Ghost (in that order) get struck by Cupid’s arrow and it’s got them pouring their hearts out to the objects of their affection without a bunch of cliches or going extra heavy on the cheese (Ghost’s animated verse will make you chuckle or at least smile). If you’ve ever been temporarily mesmerized or infatuated by a woman’s splendor, then you can easily relate to the trio’s rhymes. Rza builds the soothing backdrop around a seductive bass line, a sexy piano loop, and a splash of Teddy Pendergrass’ smooth vocals to bring all the pieces together on this fly love song.
Daytona 500 – Yes, I know Bob James’ “Nautilus” has been the source material for many a hip-hop instrumental. So, Rza might not get originality points for flippin’ it for the backdrop for Ironman’s second single, but it still sounds incredible hearing Rae, Ghost and Cappadonna dismantle the legendary break beat (especially Raekwon; dude takes his faster blade to another speed on this one). Side note: None of the parties involved were in the music video for this song, but fittingly, it only used clips from the old school Japanese cartoon, Speed Racer, which was both original and dope.
Motherless Child – This was originally released on the Sunset Park Soundtrack about six months prior to Ironman’s release. Rza provides ominous bluesy chords, choppy drums and a vocal snippet with Black church shrieks to back Ghost’s congested and confusing street storyline. I was never crazy about this one. Rza’s instrumental is cool, but Raekwon sounds like he was laying down reference vocals and Ghostface sounds awkward and uncomfortable rhyming over the beat.
Black Jesus – Right after Popa Wu (rip) sets this one off with an interesting lesson/lecture, Rza brings in slight drums and what sounds like a loop of some ancient warrior chant. U-God joins Ghost and Rae and gets off another quality verse alongside his comrades. And the church said: amen.
After The Smoke Is Clear – The Delfonics (whose prime years were in the late sixties/early seventies) stop by to add some soulful harmony to Rza’s heavy drums and thunderous bass line, as our host, Rae and Rza get off another round of verbal darts. This definitely sounds like filler, but it’s still decent.
All That I Got Is You – This was the lead single from Ironman. Rza, once again, starts this one off with a Sonny Carson snippet, then sets the somber mood with weeping soulful sonics for our host to get vulnerable, painting a vivid picture of his impoverished childhood: “Fifteen of us in a three bedroom apartment, roaches everywhere, cousins and aunts was there, four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head, I didn’t like to sleep with Jon-Jon, he peed the bed, seven o’clock, pluckin’ roaches out the cereal box, some shared the same spoon, watchin’ Saturday cartoons, sugar water was are thing, every meal was no frill, in the summer, free lunch held us down like steel.” The Queen of hip-hop soul, Mary J. Blige provides an emotional refrain and a verse from the perspective of Ghost’s mom, which is enough to tug at your heart’s strings and move you to tears. Papa Wu wraps things up with an optimistic bow, reminding Ghost that his rough childhood made him into the man he is today and “If you forget where you come from, you’re never gonna make it to where you’re going.” This is a powerful record, and Rza didn’t even have to add drums to it.
The Soul Controller – After hearing the Force MD’s croon a portion of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Ghost’s opening verse where he talks about escaping the projects and a life of drug dealing, I thought this song was going to be about life, death, purpose and a higher power; and it might be, but Ghost’s last two verses get extremely abstract and spacy, leaving me lost like the SS Minnow he references at the end of his final verse (shoutout to Gilligan’s Island). Ghost’s rhymes may be a bit bewildering, but Rza’s beautiful snake charming music will keep you in a trance. Side note: This track was removed from all Ironman pressing after 2001 due to sample clearance issues. So, if you’re listening to the album on your favorite DSP, it won’t be there. Another reason I like owning physical copies of my music.
Marvel – Ironman closes with a Ghost and Rza duet that finds the duo discussing the marvelous virtues of the “power u” from two different perspectives. Ghost spends his verse describing Wildflower, who’s so bad she would make Sunshine from Boomerang blush (according to Ghost, her vagina performs magic, stays soaking’ wet and she has a body so bangin’ it growls…um, where can I meet her?). Rza goes beyond the surface of bangin’ bodies and lust and speaks scientifically about the womb, pregnancy and birth, which is sobering enough to make Wildflower’s box dry up and her prey go limp. The vibrating blunted backdrop is almost hypnotic and the screaming/singing female voice laced throughout was a nice added touch.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was and will always be a classic and one of the greatest hip-hop albums of its era. Rae and Ghostface’s chemistry on the album is undeniable, as the duo would paint Rza’s raw palette of beats with their colorful slang and a vivid stream of consciousness rhyme style, making for a thoroughly entertaining album that is worthy of the praise it garners. But what has troubled me over the years is why its unofficial companion piece, Ironman, doesn’t get the respect that it deserves.
Ironman pretty much picks up where Cuban Linx leaves off with Rae and Ghost taking the listener on another Rza backed musical excursion, but this time around, Cappadonna tags along, playing the welcomed third wheel. The year in between the release of Cuban Linx and Ironman did all parties involved well: Rza’s production sounds more layered with a rich soulful feel, Rae’s Shaolin slang sounds sharper than ever, and the dark horse, Cappadonna, gives an impressive breakout performance, even stealing the show on a few of the album’s tracks. Ghostface graciously shares the stage with several different parties on Ironman, but it doesn’t dim his light. Whether he’s throwing battle charged verbal darts or showing vulnerability while expressing his emotions (see “Wildflower” and “All That I Got Is You”), Ghost’s charisma shines bright as he laces Ironman with his lively language delivered in his slightly animated, always energized flow.
I’ll listen to the argument that Ironman slows down a bit towards the end, but the first three quarters of the album is so impressive, it should be given a pass to come back to earth for a few tracks (and don’t forget, Cuban Linx starts off slow before it finally builds steam). This may be an unpopular opinion, but pound for pound, Ironman is a better album than Cuban Linx and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath and included in the discussion of greatest hip-hop albums from the nineties. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
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