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A look back at Ghostface Killah’s ‘Ironman ’ 20 years later

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When Ghostface Killah’s debut LP, “Ironman,” dropped on Oct. 29, 1996, I had only just turned two. At this young age, any sparking curiosities about the world that arose within my mind were quickly extinguished by the dampening code of law that The Bible ordained. My parents would place a copy in my lap, utter the word “truth,” and then leave me to grapple with the ramifications of feeling pressured to live a somber and prudent life.

Yet those familiar with the musical Bible of the Wu-Tang Clan know that it contains specific lyrical scriptures, with a different wisdom that stands on par with the greatest proverbs of Solomon. Inside, one can find remarkable sound articulations, generated in the form of raw hip-hop, which can easily quell any downtrodden feelings or unwanted pressures like my own.

On GZA’s “B.I.B.L.E” Killah Priest spits, “I searched for the truth since my youth/and went to church since birth, but it wasn’t worth the loot.” Later, Priest says, “Why should you die to go to heaven?”

These words hit my young self incredibly hard, their impact much stronger than anything a conventional cantor could produce. Through its process of interweaving philosophy and theology, I realized that rap music could be a tool for intellectual stimulation instead of pure entertainment.

The Wu-Tang Clan gave me, and many other youths our “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E).” Each member of the group has their own personal take on the facts of life, and it was nearly impossible to not feel enamored with the consistent flow, style, beats and bars that this Staten Island clan was putting out into the rap world.

RZA, Wu-Tang’s main producer and beat-maker, works the keyboard sampler like King David used to play his harp. GZA, the undisputed genius of the group, infuses philosophically complex rhymes unmatched by any other rapper. Method Man brings a recognizable voice and methodical style to his rap game. Raekwon is like a chef, always in the kitchen cooking up something new. Old Dirty Bastard was a nut, but his style had no precedent.

Last but far from least is Ghostface Killah, aka Tony Starks. Ghostface is an incredibly multifaceted rapper. His presence is so layered that throwing singular attributes towards his rapping style would do no justice to its full prowess.

On “Ironman,” listeners can get a taste of Ghostface’s rapping personality. The album’s opening track, “Iron Maiden,” conveys Ghostface as a drug slinging gangster willing to protect his turf and product no matter what the cost. The next track, “Wildflower,” shows Ghostface as a Shakespearean, tragic figure, fed up with the promiscuity of the women in his life, yet confident that he need not worry because his package is the “bomb baby.”

With “All That I Got Is You,” Ghostface is in a sentimental mood. Reflecting on his past and the struggles that his mom went through to raise him and two brothers, Ghost proves that loving your mother is a fundamental tenet to being a true thug.

Twenty years have passed since the young Tony Starks put out “Ironman,” yet he remains as productive today as he was at 26. His 12 studio albums and five collaborative efforts are by far the most from any Wu-Tang member. But a good work ethic doesn’t mean a thing if the quality doesn’t follow.

That’s the thing about Ghostface: no matter what he does musically, he never falters in putting out albums with nasty rhymes and top-tier production. We should therefore consider him to be the most consistent rapper alive today. Each of his records, without fail, brings forth a fresh take on his innovative rhyming style, and new album narratives filled with the looniest stories.

His entire legacy comes back to one place: “Ironman.” “Ironman” is like François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” or Jackson Pollock’s “Mural.” Like these monumental debut works, “Ironman” was a major event within its own artistic world. It was a record that brought forth some of RZA’s hardest beats yet, established Ghostface as one of the premier East Coast rappers at that time and solidified the narrative style that influenced many other big East Coast hip-hop records.

Today, the rap world is filled with many artists whose self-image is as essential to their art as the music itself. “Ironman” represented a time when it was all about the weight of each word. Rappers like Ghostface were using poetry to depict real-life scenarios, and on “Ironman” all you’ll hear are truthful depictions of life out in Staten Island.

If only my parents had dropped Ghostface Killah’s debut LP “Ironman” into my lap 20 years ago.

William Plotnick can be reached at [email protected]

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