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Ghostface Killah's "Ironman": 20 Years Later

A brief trip back to 1996 in honor of Pretty Toney's debut album.

1996 was an unforgettable year in Hip-Hop. Aside from seeing the release of Jay Z’s debut LP, Reasonable Doubt, 2Pac had released the final album of his lifetime, All Eyez on Me. The year also saw sophomore releases from The Fugees, Nas, and OutKast, those albums being The Score, It Was Written, and ATLiens, respectively. But from the slums of Shaolin rose the Wallabee Champion, Ghostface Killah, a 26-year-old emcee with the skills to stand apart from his Wu-Tang Clan brethren as well as his competition. Before Robert Downey, Jr. took on the role of the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” there was only one Tony Stark.

Released as the fifth solo project from the bloody chambers, Ghost maneuvers through the album with the knowledge of a being wiser than anyone in his class and the flamboyance of Antonio Fargas’ “Flyguy.” Having the RZA construct the soundscape is a given for any Wu project, but it’s the intense lyricism presented by the rapper that completes the Blaxploitation vision. The influence of the genre is undeniable. However, it’s not all glamour on his debut, Ironman, though, as we’re treated to a different perspective of Staten Island than what had been depicted in previous efforts by Clan members.

With assistance from Raekwon and Cappadonna, Ghostface slings witty coke raps over soul and funk samples that, in sync with one another, develop the visuals for the streets of the “Crooked Letter ‘I’” the emcee walked during his early days. The drug game may be a crucial component in the universe that Rae and Ghost rap about, but the teachings of the Supreme language are just as important in their cinematic tales. Weaving together concepts such “Gods,” “Earths,” and moving product, the trio do a perfect job at giving you what life in the streets were about for them, in a sense not unlike what Hype Williams was attempting with his cult favorite film Belly.

In between firing off lines like, “Doing forever sh-t like pissing out the window on turnpikes, Robbing n----s for leathers, high swiping on dirt bikes” on “Daytona 500” or taking part in the popular posse cut “Winter Warz,” Ghost also seamlessly managed to let the sentiments flow, especially in regards to his “earths.” “What's happening brown sugar? Say you look so good today, Ankle bracelet wrapped around your leg, Here have a seat, complimentary drinks is on me,” he raps on “Camay.” The pair of tracks, released as A-and-B-side singles, is a prime example of how Ghost juxtaposes his vividly aggressive narratives against a toned down state of vulnerability. He excels at this technique very much like Method Man on “All I Need,” and it’s remix featuring Mary J. Blige, who would later serve as a powerhouse feature on the album’s tear-inducing “All That I Got Is You.”

Outside of the music realm, the emcee – often known as Tony Starks – has made appearances on television shows, usually as himself, such as The Boondocks and 30 Rock. His nickname and affinity for the Marvel comics character "Iron Man" even lead to an appearance in the 2008 blockbuster as a Dubaian sheik who meets the real Tony Stark at a party. While the sequence was cut from the theatrical version of the film, Ghost’s video for “Celebrate,” (Big Doe Rehab) plays in the background of a scene featuring a drunken Stark and friend James Rhodes.

In the twenty years since the release of Ironman, Ghostface Killah has become an unstoppable force in music and one of Hip-Hop’s most consistent acts. His ear for quality production is unmatched by any of his peers and his flow and style is of such a distinct variety it's noticeable when other artists decides to take from it. Chef and Ghost already warned us about biters on The Purple Tape (something this generation could actually learn from). However, when revisiting this album, you'll realize that there is a song for any moment, should it be with a loved one, riding the train in the wee hours of the morning, or maybe you're outside doing something you shouldn't be. Ironman is a standout project that often does not get the same recognition as that of Illmatic or Ready to Die when talking debuts but it's equally as incredible. With twelve albums under his belt, multiple of which have gone on to receive universal acclaim from music critics, the CEO of Starks Enterprises has yet to show any signs of slowing down.

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