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Rapdom is a land in constant metamorphosis. Rhythmic chemists and lyrical technicians are always coming up with a new gimmick, a new gadget to expand the empire’s borders. Some kid loops digital samples or the Jungle Brothers trumpet the value of beaded necklaces; Chuck D declares black a primary color, and white kids in Iowa are spotted sporting Africa medallions.
But there is a place in Rapdom that lags behind the times. Staten Island, New York’s forgotten borough, is better known for its ferry than for any contributions to the science of boom. Legend has it that on the lost isle of Staten, DJs still cut records off-beat and rappers kick two-bar rhymes, while primitives brandish four-ringer rings and fat gold chains.
At least that’s what people said before 1992. That was the year a loose band of anti-heroes stepped from Staten’s badlands and (with some assistance) rescued hiphop from a lyrical ice age. Scorned by record labels and execs, this motley crew of 40-clutchers and la-puffers pressed up its own single, “Protect Ya Neck,” and sent it spinning through the hiphop underground.
Now in 1996, Wu-Tang Clan has gone from being an industry bum-rusher to a gold and platinum gusher. “Protect Ya Neck” garnered the crew a deal with Loud that allowed members to sign separate deals with other labels. Wu’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), went platinum, as did Wu-Tang member Method Man’s The Tical. Solo efforts by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, and the GZA all went gold.
Now comes the sixth installment in the Wu-Tang saga, featuring an unlikely candidate. Ghostface Killah, last seen peering menacingly from behind Raekwon on the cover of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, is next up to bat with Ironman. Ghost didn’t really shine on 36 Chambers, maybe because there were so many MCs or maybe because he just wasn’t up to snuff. But on Cuban Linx he found a chemistry with Raekwon that made hiphop heads do a double take.
It’s still a volatile mixture on Ironman, a somber cityscape illuminated only by the punchy lyrics of Ghost and fellow tour guides Cappadonna and Raekwon. The trio sets it off with “Iron Maiden,” a cut that highlights the complexity of the RZA’s production. Armed with police sirens, blaring horns, and a laid-back bass line, the RZA orchestrates an aural assault, embellished by Cappadonna’s lyrics: “A cappella or deep, dirty instrumental/I could blow your style like the stormy wind blew.” Ghost and Raekwon deliver verses, with Rae dedicating the track to “Gambino niggas who swipe theirs/Deluxe rap cavaliers” and “bitches who steal beers.”
“Faster Blade” features Raekwon on the solo tip kicking some stream-of-consciousness shit over looping bells: “Continue slamming this menu at the venue/Get all up in you/Oh yeah, your friend, too/Respect Wu.”
The journey continues through “Winter Warz,” which features fellow Wu-Gambinos Masta Killa and U-God. The track pulses beneath each MC’s verse as Raekwon stitches the coloful tapestry together with a simple verbal hook: “Yes this shit is raw/Comin’ at ya door/Ya start to scream out loud/Wu-Tang’s back for more.” On his verse, Ghost breaks down his whole stilo: “You asked for it, shot up the jams like syringes/My technique alone blows doors straight off the hinges.”
This cut dropped earlier this year on the Don’t Be a Menace soundtrack, and kids were geeking everywhere off of Cappadonna’s contribution: “Dedicated to rap, nigga beware the fearsome/Lebanon-Don, Malcolm X beat threat/CD massacre, murder to cassette/I blow the spot up, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“Winter Warz” is Cappadonna’s coming-out party. Kicking some vicious verbology, the kid flows for almost half the song: “See my face on a hundred-dollar bill/Cash it in, get ten dollars back/the phat LP with Cappachino on the wax/Toss it in your thing, push valve up to 12/Put all the other LPs back on the shelf/Then smoke a blunt and dial 9-1-7/1-6-0-4-9-3-11/And you can get long-dick hiphop perfection/I damage any MC who step in my direction.”
Ironman takes a slightly softer turn with “Camay,” a sequel to Raekwon’s ode to honey-dips, “Ice Cream.” More than a few MCs have laid down soft tracks laced with syrupy lyrics and incurred the wrath of hardcore hiphoppians for betraying the sacred art. But count on the RZA to make a respectable track out of a Teddy Pendergrass sample and some mellowed-out keyboards.
Again it’s Cappadonna who steps up with the ill flow: “Peace, Dot. I’m so happy to see you at the Rendezvous/How’s life today? Your hands are softer than Camay, too/Your hairdo way more class than Halle Berry/Caught vision of me and you riding on the ferry.” But as the estrogenic ode progresses the dapper rapper finds himself at a dead end. “She’s elegant, pretty eyes, glasses, intelligent/Whispered in my ear that she’s celibate/Whispered back to her ear we don’t have to go there/As we stopped and stared at one another, like sista to brotha, I’m thinkin all the time how she could be my lover.” “Camay” is a humorous mixture of creative rhyme schemes and precise details.
But the centerpiece of Ironman is “All I Got Is You,” a one-verse autobiography that smashes the idea that there’s something cool about poverty, a notion that has been forwarded by a lot of rappers in the industry: “Check it, fifteen of us in a three-bedroom apartment, roaches everywhere/Cousins, aunts was there/Four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head/I didn’t like to sleep with John-Johnhe peed the bed/Seven o’clock pluckin’ roaches out the cereal box/We shared the same spoon watchin’ Saturday cartoons.”
It’s the graphic details, laid over the sad croonings of violins, that make Ghost’s memoir of destitution come to life. But even in the midst of misery Ghost prevents the picture from becoming a caricature by injecting some humanity into a very inhumane situation: “Things was deep, my whole youth was sharper than cleats…but I remember this, Moms would lick her fingertips/To wipe the coal out my eye before school wit’ her spit.”
Ironman cements Wu-Tang Clan as the dominant clique in hiphop. I cannot think of any outfit that grouped so many quality MCs and such an accomplished producer under one banner. Hiphop history is littered with groups that had buckets of talent but allowed themselves to be split by greed and politics. If Wu-Tang can hold itself together and keep its production and mike skills on the cutting edge, then these kids may have some longevity in an occupation that routinely doesn’t last more than a few albums.CP