The shine of distance has its appeal. Depending on how much time has passed since a key moment in history or culture, we sometimes end up arguing the moment to people who weren’t alive for it and have no choice but to believe all we say about it, which is how a mythology is built. I find myself talking about hip-hop in 1996 the way people a couple of generations before me talk about the rock and soul of 1967, waving a copy of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You or Sgt. Pepper’s, yelling about the impossibility of the stars aligning all at once to push a flood of music this rich into the world.
The year 1996 was hip-hop’s second greatest, after 1988. It was the year where the genre stretched out its new longer legs and planted another flag in the ground. More than just the number of quality albums that hit in 1996, it was also about the places they came from and the sounds they carried with them. In 1988 the West Coast decided it had to get in the game, with classic albums from Ice-T, N.W.A., Too Short, and King Tee. By 1996, particularly before the murder of Tupac that fall, the West Coast had long since leveled the playing field. Dr. Dre was the architect of one defining California sound, while DJ Shadow, Ras Kass, and Xzibit continued in the lineage of groundbreaking West Coast underground rap.
Beyond this, the South was settling into a strong consistency. A year after getting a harsh response for winning Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards, Outkast released ATLiens, an album that silenced even the strongest coast loyalists. UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty and Master P’s Ice Cream Man completed a trilogy of Southern rap albums that cemented the region’s place. In 1996 there was something for every type of rap listener: Lauryn Hill’s transcendent performance on The Score, Mobb Deep’s haunting Hell on Earth, the introduction to Jay Z as we know him now on Reasonable Doubt, a reintroduction to Busta Rhymes as we knew him then on The Coming. In 1996 we got Muddy Waters, Redman’s weirdest and most complete effort. Nas, De La Soul, The Roots, DJ Honda, and Bahamadia made their mark on the year. All of this came directly in the middle of a four-year stretch in which rap, particularly East Coast rap, sat inside of the long and dominant shadow that began in Staten Island and stretched out, spreading itself over the old rap and washing everything clean and new.
I consider rap before the Wu-Tang Clan’s peak and after it in the same way that some people might consider rock music before and after the peak of grunge. Some music arrives, and then everything that comes after it changes. That which can’t adapt won’t survive. It’s how we lost hair metal. Rap’s 1996 was able to exist, in part, because of the sound palette RZA had introduced three years before with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). That sound pushed his peers. You can hear it in Havoc’s production on Hell on Earth, in the delightful oddities resting within Muddy Waters. In that era, my friends picked their favorite Wu-Tang members the way we picked our favorite basketball players, and there was never a wrong answer. My brother preferred Method Man for his boundless energy and the tightrope of vulnerability and violence he walked. Another kid I shot hoops with preferred Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the way he maneuvered the edge of madness as maybe performance, maybe not. The kid who played the background in math class preferred RZA. I chose Ghostface Killah. It was a simple choice for me, someone who fancied myself a storyteller, a writer who recognized one of his own.
Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, which was released 20 years ago this week, is the last of the first wave of Wu-Tang solo albums. It followed Method Man’s slightly underwhelming 1994 effort Tical and three acclaimed 1995 releases by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, GZA, and Raekwon, whose solo debut was essentially a Ghostface duets project. Ironman, then, was in the interesting position of needing to not only live up to, but potentially even surpass its predecessors. Wu-Tang was at its highest point; that 1995 run felt like pure peak-era Motown, everything turning to gold before an audience’s eyes.
The Wu-Tang solo album was often a solo album in name only, and Ironman is no exception. Of its 16 tracks, only four are without a feature. The most common collaborator is Raekwon, he and Ghost cashing in on the collaborative goodwill they started on 1993’s 36 Chambers and continued on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Rae and Ghost are Wu-Tang’s unstoppable duo — one of the best duos the genre has ever seen. More than anything, it’s their voices that sound good leaning up against each other. When Raekwon takes over the hook in “Iron Maiden,” the song that starts the album, it feels like a continuation of something special that you left behind and weren’t sure you’d ever see again. When they trade verses on “Fish,” it feels brotherly, two people trying to push each other beyond what they think they’re capable of.
Two years later came a moment in the video for “Triumph,” from Wu-Tang’s 1998 album Wu-Tang Forever, where Ghostface and Raekwon trade the song’s final two verses. As Raekwon’s verse dies down, Ghostface, seemingly too thrilled to contain himself, throws his arm around Raekwon’s shoulder and kisses him on the head. Yes, of course, there is the narrative about two black men unafraid to show each other this type of physical affection. But I reach for that image and think more about how much the love that the two of them have for each other shines through in their actual collaborative efforts, which run up and down Ironman, where Raekwon holds Ghostface up as Ghost did on Rae’s solo album the year before. They are at their best when it’s just the two of them: the stark and heartbreaking “Motherless Child,” for example. Their verses run together, as if one is finishing a conversation that the other started. More than any other Wu-Tang teaming, Ghost and Rae found a harmony in the way their rhymes could run together: Ghost, the frantic, excitable image-painter; Raekwon, the plain-making, gravelly-voiced boaster. At their best, they figured out a type of harmony that pushed both of them into a different space, beyond genre and into conversation as one of the great musical duos of all time. In a time when rappers release entire collaborative albums that feel forced, disjointed, and uncomfortable, listening to the golden run of Raekwon and Ghostface from 1993 to 1998 feels like relearning a clearer, better language.
Ghostface is rap’s greatest narrator. He’s an unreliable one, to say the least, but one who provides narration as the greatest writers should. On Ironman, he is equal parts aware of his life’s moral code and deeply uninterested in it. There is less grappling over what is right or what is wrong, and only what is necessary — Wu-Tang’s Cormac McCarthy. Ironman is an album of witnessing. Its narrator hovers above all the impersonal violences of the world surrounding them, reporting what is seen. Stories switch tones and directions rapidly, sometimes dropping a listener directly in the middle of a scene that had grown tense long before we arrived. In the song “260,” Ghost opens with the image of a door being kicked down, a robbery over a turf war finally at its breaking point. I love most the writer who turns the head first to a breaking point, and not the years, days, or hours of blood that led there. Ghostface is a writer and narrator in the lineage of Slick Rick, who, too, drowned himself in heavy gold and boasted of exploits from a perspective that felt sometimes removed. But Ghostface went beyond, finding a way to challenge perceptions of language and pace and audience comfort. There are times on Ironman when I find myself confused about the geography of a song, and about its imagery — but right before I go off the edge, Ghostface pulls me back in with a grounding image. “The Soul Controller” is a gripping song about escape from poverty, from violence, from fear. In three verses, though, it blooms into something greater. We aren’t asked to assume the environment. Ghostface builds a world and, like all great writers, asks the audience to trust him enough to step inside. No one I knew pretended to understand all of Ghostface’s slang, some of which seemed, at the time, specific to only him and whatever landscape he was visualizing. But we also didn’t need to. Even his basic rap boastfulness touched an edge of absurdity that seemed at once confusing, triumphant, and hilarious. “Doin’ forever shit, like pissin’ out the window on turnpikes,” he raps on “Daytona 500,” and the confidence behind it makes sense.
A great writer knows how to pull back the curtain on a tender moment and let the light from it leak in and touch people, no matter where they are. If you grew up poor, specifically if you grew up poor and loving your mother, “All That I Got Is You” plays like a small anthem. The rapper settling a tender song into the end of an album wasn’t new by the time Ironman was released, and the trend only got more prominent in the years after. But where large parts of Ironman feel like reportage, “All That I Got Is You” is Ghostface pulling a chair to the center of a room and gathering everyone at his feet. Perhaps you, too, shared a small bed in a house that was too crowded. Perhaps you also had to wear jeans to school that had been passed down for two generations. Perhaps you went to bed hungry and woke up the same way. Perhaps someone you love was a rock through all of this, and there is a language for that here. On an album that told stark tales of dark and impulsive maneuvers, this song is a blessing. Its warmth is clear and welcome.
The Education of Sonny Carson is a 1974 film based on an autobiography of the same name, tracking the activist’s life from incarceration as a youth to his time fighting the drug trade in the ’70s. It is a jarring, fascinating, and appropriately violent film. In one scene, right before Carson is arrested for the second time, he robs a man to get money for flowers to place on his dead friend’s grave — a vivid illustration of the sacrifices we make to leave a mark on those we love. Audio clips from the film are interspersed throughout Ironman, showing up more often than any of the other films sampled. It’s stage-setting, mostly. These moments build on the album’s cinematic tone, painting a thicker, more touchable picture. Both movie and album are about becoming a man within a landscape that wishes to swallow you whole.
I say no one makes albums like this anymore, and I actually mean that no one writes like this anymore. There’s perhaps too much showing and not enough telling these days. Not enough trust that the audience will close their eyes and figure out the world you’re trying to take them to. Ghostface is the great and golden narrator. The clip that opens the album’s first song, “Iron Maiden,” is a moment when Sonny Carson, attempting to join a local gang, stands up to its leaders. “What can we, The Lords, do with a punk like you?” one asks. When Sonny responds “Kiss my ass, motherfucker,” another instructs the gang to attack Sonny.
“Just me and you, motherfucker,” Sonny replies. “Just me and you. I’ll put trademarks around your fucking eye.”
And, like that, Ironman begins. Fearless and indestructible.