Ghostface Killah: 1996-2000
Solo Albums: Ironman (1996), Supreme Clientele (2000)
Group Albums: Wu-Tang Forever (1997), The W (2000)
Biggest Hits: "All That I Got is You" f/ Mary J. Blige (1996), "Daytona 500" f/ Raekwon & Cappadonna (1996), "Motherless Child" (1997), "Apollo Kids" f/ Raekwon (1999), "Cherchez La Ghost" f/ U-God (2000)
Ghostface Killah's career is fascinating because of the way he improved as a rapper and subsequently rose to prominence amongst his many prominent colleagues in the Staten Island based nonet, Wu-Tang Clan. When the Clan first came upon the scene, Ghostface, for reasons that seemed like they might have to do with a nefarious past, never showed his face. (Hence his name.) The shadowy look seemed to suit him, because on the group's first album, 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), he pretty well stayed in the shadows, giving his brethren Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard the spotlight. His rapping was fine, passionately voiced, but not outstanding, rhymes-wise.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the second Wu-Tang Clan album. As the more prominent members released a string of solo albums that were all produced entirely by Wu founder the RZA, and so heavy with guest appearances from fellow clansmen that they can all pretty fairly be described as Wu-Tang group albums, Ghostface started to sound like one of the more dynamic and distinctive lyricists that anyone had ever heard.
The big wake-up moment was Raekwon's solo debut, Only Built for Cuban Linx.... Ghostface was all over it; so much that his name appeared on the cover with Raekwon's-the two had found such a cohesive style, they were sort of operating as a duo, an internal Wu-Tang side project. When rap fans came to realize what they had on their hands—namely, the single best rap album ever ever recorded in the history of the universe—Ghost's stock rose accordingly.
His own solo album followed in suit. Another stone-cold classic, filled with rhymes as vivid and colorful as the rainbow of home-dyed Wallabee Clarks all over the cover, Ironman established Ghostface as a master of a new kind of style: stream-of-consciousness word salad, dressed with Jabberwockian slang and a willingness to display emotion that had been all too rare in the macho world of rap up to that point. "All That I Got Is You," the album-closing duet with Mary J. Blige, joined Tupac's "Dear Mama" in setting a standard for modern Mother's-Day anthems as well as descriptions of life in poverty. If you can listen to it without welling up at the part where Ghost describes his mom wiping the sleep out of his eyes with her fingertip, well, you're a stronger man than I.
By the time the second official group album, Wu-Tang Forever, came around in 1997, Ghost was ready to shine brighter than ever. He fairly dominates the sprawling, double-length opus (along with RZA's scintillating soundscapes), delivering what many people (this one person sitting here typing this among them) believe is the single greatest rap verse of all time, on the song "Impossible."
Wu-Tang Forever, though, turned out to be peak-Wu-Tang. Over the next two years, as Bad Boy's shiny suits ushered the "bling era" into hip-hop, the groups' grimy aesthetic fell out of favor. Second solo albums from Method Man and Raekwon fell flat. Other producers started showing up in album credits, RZA having seemingly used up all his juice. The guys separated, appearing together, or even getting in the same room, increasingly rarely. Folks moved to other parts of the country. The magic was gone.
But leave it to Ghostface to deliver an amazing parting shot on behalf of his crew. One more relentlessly intense display of rap skill to put a seal on the Twentieth Century and open the next one with bold, brave-new-world panache. Supreme Clientele had a quiet run-up to release, and a low-key smaller-scale launch. The song titles are listed in the wrong order on the album packaging. The musical tracks are dusty, based on samples of old soul records, more reminiscent of 36 Chambers, in many ways, than any Wu-Tang project since. And, Jesus, the rhymes! Ghost had perfected his style-a whirlwind sirocco of descriptives and memories expressed with breathless emotionality and his patented "vivid laser-eye guy" attention to detail. It didn't sell as well as its predecessor, no Wu albums were putting up strong numbers at that point. But for the heads in the know, connoisseurs of the finest rap lyrics available, it was clear that Ghost had established himself as the most important Wu-Tang rapper of them all. The one that would carry the flag forward. — Dave Bry