While nowadays regulated to the lowly status of a legacy act, mainly trotted out whenever some late-night comedian wants to make some forced joke about how “Wu-Tang is for the kids” (or to continue his long-standing beef with Martin Shkreli), Ghostface Killah was — and as hard as it might be to fathom in hindsight, given the popular taste of the era — something of a critical darling throughout the 2000s. Generally accepted by rap pundits as the most noteworthy member of the Wu-Tang Clan to regularly keep up with, he enjoyed a steady stream of good press throughout the decade up until the release of the R&B-heavy (and incredibly titled) Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City in 2009, a truly seismic year and key transitory period for the ever-shifting landscape of hip-hop — which was, unfortunately for Ghostface, right around the time his rampant homophobia and violent misogyny could no longer be overlooked, and where his nasty, absurdist lyrical proclivities were starting to be seen as unfashionable. But that was, ultimately, the key to Ghostface’s craft (the latter of these qualities, not the former) and persona, a sort of homegrown bard of the patently ludicrous; he served as the group’s Pagliacci, the tragic clown who saw the world as it is: violent, cruel, and grotesquely bleak. But even then, he never simply wrote these types of raps for rapping’s sake; he painted vivid, lifelike pictures, crafted lived-in narratives, and performed with a manic, off-kilter cadence that felt like he was going on an extended tangent. He could assume the point of view of just about any character — “Maxine” is a pretty funny exercise in shifting POVs — but functioned best under his Tony Stark alias, aligning himself with a billionaire who could seemingly become invincible; for Ghostface, the pure willpower of his raps became his impenetrable suit of armor, the vessel by which he could perform incredible feats.
Unlike his fellow Wu-Tang brothers whose careers had largely fizzled out by the turn of the new millennium, Ghostface hit his stride after the fact: while Ironman was a perfectly acceptable debut album (out of the first string of Wu-Tang solo projects, it’s certainly no Liquid Swords or Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…; it’s slightly better than the uneven Tical) with a few hits — the Mary J. Blige-assisted “All That I Got Is You.” It was far more a collaborative project that just happened to feature Ghostface on every single song than a defiant singular opening statement that was meant to kick-start a standalone career. It was only after surviving a near-death health scare — his untreated diabetes reached critical condition by 1997, which prompted a healing retreat to Africa — and serving a four-month prison sentence on Rikers Island that he would be able to properly re-introduce himself to the world with his sophomore record, the hyper-glamourous Supreme Clientele. It was a fitting title, considering everything about the album screams high-class from the outset: there’s RZA’s lush, expansive production (this really would be his last labor of love, at least musically speaking), rife with progressive soul samples that would influence the likes of a young Kanye West, who would eventually sample the haunting “Mighty Healthy” on 2012’s “New God Flow” (and even got Ghostface to deliver an impressive 26-bar addendum verse about soccer moms “payin’ for cock”); there’s the expensive attempt at generating another chart-topping hit with “Cherchez La Ghost,” a retooled, modernized version of the big-band/disco one-hit wonder “Cherchez La Femme”; and there’s the elite wordplay from Ghostface himself that borders on avant-garde poetry, often inverted and loaded with layers of cultural meaning. It’s been said that Supreme Clientele is the Finnegans Wake of rap albums, but that’s a bit unfair; at least with Joyce’s work, there’s some consensus on what the major narrative beats are.
If anything, Ghostface’s stream-of-conscious approach serves as a reminder of a time when just about anything could be thrown into a rap song, so long as it fit the rhyme scheme (“Scooby snack jurassic plastic gas booby trap” is an actual line that Ghostface raps at one point, and it somehow makes perfect sense in the moment). On “Nutmeg,” he starts off describing his machine-like ability to roll blunts in comparison to a former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers who majored in agriculture (“watch me Dolly Dick it”), which turns into a segue about the finest chicken shops in Poughkeepsie, and continues the sentiment with a shout-out to “seasoned giraffe ribs” with a “hickory cinnamon-scented glaze.” In fact, one could spend all day ruminating on the many great food references found on Supreme Clientele, so take your pick: you got the “eight ravioli bags” line, “rhymes is made of garlic,” Ghostface declaring raps are like “ziti,” RZA barking about dipping cookies in milk (Ghostdini drinks cognac only, no wine; he also refuses to eat pork), that crazy-ass story about how he meets the Queen at the opera and she has ketchup on her leg “from a Whopper.” But perhaps the most endearing lyrical quality about the album is how unabashedly pro-Black Ghostface is throughout, even going as far as calling himself the “Apollo rap Frederick Douglass” on the eerie “Ghost Deini.” He grieves for recently slain 2Pac and Biggie, mourns the losses of Marvin Gaye and Malcolm X, exposes the Devil for planting “fear inside the black babies” on “One” (an interesting digression for a song about ripping skirts off women without their permission); his only major misstep in that department is a backhanded anti-gay joke — “one of the illest since Magic Johnson, no disrespect,” essentially the equivalent of ending the bar on “no homo” — which is more indicative of what was generally expected on a commercial hip-hop project at the time. Unfunny skits that grind everything to a halt? Why of course they’re here, because they simply must be. (Though Clyde Smith’s iconic retort to 50 Cent is forever welcomed). But everything else about Supreme Clientele is of its own artistic volition and vision, which in and of itself serves as a glowing testament to great music’s everlasting ability to forever outlive its perceived cultural shelf-life. There’s even a supposed sequel executive-produced by West that’s on the way sometime this year (Ghostface announced a February release last November; the month came and went with zero updates), further cementing its sustained influence. Who knew that one of Iron Man’s superpowers was being able to craft a body of work as immortal as this?
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.