Recorded in that fog and against a deadline—the last one he would ever accept from a record company—Ironman captures a Ghostface who is scattered, overflowing with angst, lashing out. Where on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) he wrote concentrated bursts of athletic threats or longer, mostly linear reflections, here his internal logic is scrambled, the syntax shifting, time an afterthought. But this fragmentation is a natural complement to his written and vocal style. Whatever sorrow or delusion bleeds through the mix ends up making the rapper seem like a method actor, whipping himself into such a frenzy that he can convincingly render a world where there is a bag of cash sitting in the trunk of every bait car, an assassin in every vestibule. Over scythelike RZA beats that recall the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Ghost recreates the New York underworld of his adolescence in impressionistic fits.
The idea for the Blaxploitation riff came from RZA, whose creative whims dictated every Wu release he helmed. Working first from his estate in Ohio, the Abbot played Ghost beats over the phone: Al Green’s God-fearing “Gotta Find a New World” morphed into an impish bounce on opener “Iron Maiden.” Bob James’ “Nautilus,” a staple sample for rap producers dating back to the late ’80s, is made to sound, on “Daytona 500,” as if it’s gasping for its first breaths. The palette is loose and hooky, and it underlines Ghost’s humor. It also lowers the album’s stakes, at least in the early going. If Cuban Linx was a sweeping epic, Ironman is The Mack: lean and vulgar, irresistible all the same.
The New York that Ghost and Rae (and Cappadonna, who receives prime billing and appears on the album cover) imagine is icy and intermittently forgiving. The album came out at the end of October, and its scenes are largely set in winters that are broken up by short trips to the Caribbean or Hawaii, where middle-class drug runners sip “mixed drinks out of broke coconut bowls” and trudge through slush on their way home from JFK. Ghost’s verse on “Motherless Child,” the cleanest distillation of the album’s concerns, crescendos to a rich young dilettante-hustler being killed during a robbery of his $5,000 King Tut necklace; one of his assailants’ puffy Guess outfit might suggest a bulletproof vest underneath, while the other’s Pelle Pelle certainly hides a gun.
Raekwon’s numerous guest appearances do not make him quite the co-star Ghost was on Cuban Linx, but he adapts well to the lighter fare. One of his many gifts as a writer is to pack familiar patterns with so much idiosyncrasy that they feel wholly new. This is true when he’s dispensing straightforward wordplay on the wrong half of a bar (“Slide on these niggas like a fresh pair”), packing layered insults and odd imagery into seemingly overdetermined rhyme schemes (“No, you won’t play me like your lady/Pay me 380, spit it at you like a baby”), or sinking into the beat as if it were quicksand, as he does on “260” when he raps, “We walked in, both of us, looked like terrorists.” Cappadonna appears a comparatively modest five times and might be even more impressive—especially for his turn on “Camay,” where his “heart was racing like the hands on the clock” as he leaves a seduction on a tantalizingly ambiguous note.