'Ironman' at 25: Ghostface's Magnum Opus Is Tough
By Alec Banks
RZA had a "five year plan" to solidify the growth and staying power of the Wu-Tang Clan. By creating impactful solo projects for each of its members, they would have the ability to touch many different pockets of Hip-Hop culture.
"I want all of y'all to get on this bus.," he told his fellow MC's. "And be passengers. And I'm the driver. And nobody can ask me where we going. I'm taking us to No. 1. Give me five years, and I promise that I'll get us there."
Getting the Clan "there" involved a unique deal with Steve Rifkin at Loud Records who only had to pony up $60,000 to sign the whole group. But there was a method to RZA's madness. As individuals, they were all allowed to sign deals with other record companies — while taking the Wu-Tang name with them. Essentially, RZA was planting franchise players across the board.
"When Def Jam wanted to sign Method Man, they wanted to sign Method Man and Old Dirty," RZA said. "And Old Dirty wanted to be on Def Jam — everybody, that was like the dream label. But if I had Old Dirty and Method Man on Def Jam, that's two key pieces going in the same direction, whereas there's other labels that needed to be infiltrated. I recall telling GZA, 'You'll get the college crowd,' because he's the intellectual. 'Raekwon and Ghost, all the gangstas' — their metaphors read like a police blotter — 'Meth will get the women and children — and he didn't want to do women and children. He didn't know that, though. Method Man is a rough, rugged street dude, but all the girls love him." Method Man is playful. "Myself, I was looking more like that I bring in rock 'n' roll."
The solo albums rolled out after 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers: Method Man's Tical, Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., GZA's Liquid Swords, and finally, Ghostface's Ironman.
Ghost surely felt the pressure to deliver. 1995's Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords each went gold. Their success coincided with personal turmoil for Ghost. That same year, he was arrested outside the Palladium nightclub after an altercation with a valet, and he also found out that he was a diabetic. As a result, he has since reflected that his debut was gloomier than he ever intended.
Calling Ironman "dark" is like simplifying being in love as "feeling good." While Ghostface — as the creator of the album — can certainly encapsulate his project in a succinct way, the album's quality certainly justifies a deeper examination beyond a motif of "light and dark."
Much in the same way that Only Built 4 Cuban Links felt like a collaborative album between Rae and Ghost, Ironman has a similar spirit of teamwork. As the architect of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA's beauty was in his ability to identify MC's who had different styles, that could still make cohesive music together. However, Rae and Ghost — both sonically and stylistically — seem the most similar amongst Clan members. On Ironman, Ghostface and Raekwon take ample opportunities to treat the beat as a suggestion for how to freak it — often combining smooth and staccato in a single bar.
Songs like "Iron Maiden," "260," and "Daytona 500" sound like literal days at the races. While a genre like country usually evoke the spirit of the open road, RZA's production — combined with the aforementioned MC's (plus Cappadonna) — gave listeners a Hip-Hop version of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again." But instead of pick up trucks and flat country, they paint a picture of urban blight and hopelessness.
For as much synergy as Ironman contains, there are interesting dichotomies, too. Specifically, the jarring treatment of women on contrasting songs like "Wild Flower" and the Mary J. Blige-assisted, "All That I Got Is You." While hindsight is, of course, 20/20, when it comes to misogyny in Hip-Hop, Ghost was at the forefront of being able to unpack female sacrifice, poverty, and heartbreak, on a single song.
It's impossible to imagine a contemporary scenario where an upstart label like Griselda Records could exist without a body of work like Ironman. Label head, Westside Gunn, said of the path he, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher, went down, "“This lane was dead. It was looked at like, ‘We not listening to that shit. Don’t play this shit in my car.’" Now, Gunn's esoteric, high-pitched oration from the pulpit seems to have reginited the spirit of groups like Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, and M.O.P.
25 years is practically a lifetime in Hip-Hop. There's a whole segment of the population who hears/reads "Ironman," and thinks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, instead of Ghostface's debut. And that's okay. Ironman isn't as a debut album that is a Hip-Hop prerequisite — like Nas's Illmatic — because no one member is bigger than Wu-Tang Clan. 25 years later, and it seems like RZA's 5-year plan worked out quite well.