“Now it’s time to erase that mistake.” – Dick Jones
Many years ago when I was still in college I wrote a review of Ghostface Killah’s “Ironman” for a precursor to RapReviews called HEADz UP! While I’m still pleased with how ambitious I was to publish several different “e-zine” newsletters in my teens and early 20’s, before there was even a dot com bubble (and subsequent burst), this is now a review I’m not particularly fond of. I had a chip on my shoulder and as the young often do I was begging for someone to come and knock it off. Instead of reviewing the album for what it was, I reviewed it based on my expectations before it even came out, and then proceeded to mock it for all the things it wasn’t.
Frankly it was a piss poor take. Since I’m not the psychopath Dick Jones is, I’m not going to “erase” that mistake entirely. I’ll leave the original up if you want to see how foolish I used to be. I even linked it in the opening paragraph. As far as you, me, or anyone else should be concerned though, what follows is the real review of “Ironman” over a quarter of a century in the making. Hopefully I’ve matured enough in the intervening years to write something that more accurately reflects what this album is to me now, to Wu-Tang Clan fans in general, and to the hip-hop community at large. Let’s do this.
I can’t even talk about “Ironman” today without talking about “The Education of Sonny Carson” first. You don’t have to have seen the film nor read the autobiography it’s based on, but you should at least know why he and RZA chose it for dialogue snippets. Incidentally RZA produced all of the tracks on this album except for “Fish,” which he handed off to True Master, and we’ll get to that in due course. The “Iron Maiden” intro sets the tone for the album. Robert “Sonny” Carson was a political activist throughout his life, and his activism also shaped the life of his son, the late Lumumba “Professor X” Carson as well. In his youth he was initiated into a street gang (changed from “Bishops” to “Lords” in the film) and the fiery energy Rony Clanton displays as a young Sonny is matched by the trio of rappers to feature on the song — Raekwon, Ghost, and Cappadonna. Police sirens and vintage Batman style “BIF! POW! ZAM!” sound effects meld with the simultaneously mellow and menacing instrumental.
Now if I were to judge why a younger Flash was initially lukewarm to this album, it was because I wanted a Ghostface album to feature more of Dennis Coles and less of everybody else. In particular I found Cappadonna’s inclusion odd, as he was treated like a full-fledged member of the Wu-Tang Clan when he hadn’t even been on their debut album. Ignorance y’all. Youthful ignorance on my part, combined with the fact there was no Wikipedia in 1996 when this album came out, so I couldn’t look up or understand how a jail sentence kept him from being with his brethren. It also helps that in recent years I’ve heard so many mediocre AutoTune emotionless singing rappers that Cap’s actual raps are a breath of fresh air. Now the flip side of that coin is that he’s still the weakest link of this album, but being a weak leak in a really strong chain means you can still hold up over time.
“Wildflower” is another of those links that’s held up by everything around it. I skip this song almost every time I listen to the album. It’s well produced, it sounds good, and it even features Ghostface getting the spotlight all to himself. What’s the problem? Frankly it’s some of the most misogynistic vile bars ever to feature on a Wu-Tang solo album. It’s even more odd given that it features on the same album that produced a heartfelt hit single praising black mothers in “All That I Got Is You.” In retrospect it makes more sense that this song came early in the album and that one came near the end. Much like Sonny Carson, Ghostface also matured his views from his street tough youth, and in a much faster span given this album clocks in at just under 65 minutes.
“Ironman” gravitates toward this end of the spectrum in quality. Even on songs where Ghostface is nowhere to be found, such as Raekwon’s solo performance on “The Faster Blade” and the Wu-Tang Clan forming like Voltron for “Assassination Day,” the RZA production and razor sharp verses leave you smiling and nodding your head. I still consider Masta Killa among the most underrated Wu members off the strength of his final verse on the latter track. It’s hard to steal the show when you’re rapping with Raekwon, RZA and Inspectah Deck, but in my opinion his charisma and style perfectly encapsulate why they named the song after his words.
If you’re looking for more of that “Enter the Wu-Tang” magic this album is not lacking it one bit. Ghostface gets all of the shine he didn’t on the prior track in “Poisonous Darts” and then some, complete with RZA throwing in movie dialogue from “The Mystery of Chess Boxing.” Lovely. Only in later years did I learn that “Box In Hand” was the wrong title for track eight, which should have been called “Wu Will Survive,” while the actual “Box In Hand” appears elsewhere. Whatever you call it this time it’s Method Man’s turn to steal the show with his immaculately chopped syllables.
“There’s no to-tal or sum to this equa-tion, you fro-zen
Many may come but few are cho-sen
Pretty niggaz want to play the war po-sin
When the ruckus come, they be the first to get their shine stolen”
And I did say we’d circle back to “Fish,” so now it’s time to say if you didn’t know True Master did it, you would be forgiven for thinking it was another RZA banger. He mimics the production techniques so well that he’s clearly a protege schooled in the ways of the master (how kung-fu of them). The irony of that sentence though is that RZA broke the mold for his OWN steelo with “Camay.” I never expected him to bust out a soulful piano melody with Teddy Pendergrass crooning the hook, but it certainly caught the attention of the listeners. While Ghost’s seductive compliments are in stark (no pun) contrast to his vile pronouncements on “Wildflower,” I think a mature listener can understand it, and may even decide “sometime(s) a black woman just need to be loved” is a more truthful aspect of Mr. Coles than his abrasive words from earlier.
Now before I move on I want to admit to a bit of confusion here. I was sure that “Camay” was released off the album as a single, and the music video embedded above would seem to confirm that, but officially the only three singles are the aforementioned “All That I Got Is You” along with “Daytona 500” and “Motherless Child.” It’s pretty amazing that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the latter two, but this is a pretty amazing album. If you know “Ironman” for one reason it’s probably “Daytona 500,” because everything about the song is immaculate. I’m serious. It’s the perfect Bob James “Nautilus” sample, the Force MDs sing the hook, and all three emcees (Rae, Ghost and Cap in that order) come fully fueled up with high octane bars. This is hands down my favorite Cappadonna performance. It’s that good. If you don’t sing the hook when this comes on then you didn’t grow up with it. Hilariously the original “music video” was just clips from Speed Racer, and as such tends to vanish from video hosting sites for copyright reasons. If the one below disappears don’t be surprised.
As for that other single, “Motherless Child” was originally featured on the “Sunset Park” soundtrack. That movie and anything related to it are now so obscure that I am thankful they included the song on this album. It would be a crying shame if this haunting RZA track and classic example of Dennis Coles being a hip-hop storyteller went forgotten. In actual truth this song is a movie unto itself. It paints a picture with words you can see in front of your eyes like the biggest cinema screen you’ve ever seen.
If I’m mortified by the review I wrote decades ago it’s because I really can’t find much beyond “Wildflower” to complain about now. Here’s the one complaint I can’t avoid — “The Soul Controller” has been pulled from all pressings of the album since the original due to an uncleared sample. Now you know how the internet is, and plenty of people have uploaded the song to YouTube on their own, but if you live in North America and play an “official” playlist on YouTube Music, Spotify, et cetera they pretend this song doesn’t exist. I guaran-damn-tee you that it does.
In short from “Iron Maiden” to “Marvel” it’s fair to say “Ironman” is a Wu-Tang classic, and possibly even an all-time rap classic. There are few things I’ve been more wrong about in my life the first time I wrote about them than this album. I know eagle-eyed readers will be able to think of two other examples though, and trust me I’m considering a “second take” on those two albums as well. (Hint: Both are from NYC rappers and both are in the same decade as this album.) For now let it suffice to say I’ve finally erased a mistake I meant to fix a long time ago. I’m mortified by the immaturity of my youth but pleased to say that in the intervening years “Ironman” aged like fine wine.