A case for Ghostface Killah as hip-hop's greatest of all time, also known as the GOAT.
In this series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi and DMX. Today, we're going to bat for Ghostface Killah.
It begins with Iron Man’s theme song sampled straight from the 1960’s cartoon. It’s a bouncing, ear-worm of a jingle regrettably left out from the newest crop of the Golden Avenger films. When the short, twenty-second tune fades out, a journalist’s voice enters with breaking news: Iron Man’s fate depends on an “subminiature component,” which keeps his broken heart beating. We’re then greeted with the strings which open Eddie Holman’s 1977 single, “It’s Over.”
This is the introduction for Supreme Clientele, which, as most hip-hop aficionados will tell you, is one of the greatest rap albums of all time. Immaculately concepted back in February of 2000, the album cemented Ghostface Killah’s status as a “Greatest Rapper of All Time,” contender. Ghostface’s range expanded from grimy, Mafioso bent, faceless solider of the streets to soulful rap superstar with varying degrees of skill now added to his arsenal.
By the time Supreme Clientele dropped, Ghostface's resume was already quite impressive: founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, dropped verses all over Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), basically co-starred on Raekwon’s bona fide classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, released Ironman, and entered God-like territory with spotlight-stealing verses on 1997’s hotly anticipated Wu-Tang Forever. In the year 2017, his resume should also include: GHOSTFACE KILLAH IS THE GREATEST RAPPER OF ALL TIME.
Let’s present the facts. Hidden deep inside most artist’s catalogs lurks a few duds. Whether it be a regrettable collaboration, or an all-too-common album misfire, these blemishes add up over time. Yet Ghostface’s combined work, which includes twelve solo studio albums, seven with the Wu-Tang Clan, and countless collaboration albums remains staggeringly consistent. Even those considered among his weakest releases, such as Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, earn points for their creative vision (Ghostface abandons his raps for a straight up R&B album).
Consistency isn’t Ghostface’s mere claim to rap’s highest throne; he’s also either released or appeared on at least six certified classic albums, inspired a countless number of present day artists with his vibrant story-telling or absurd, but somehow profound, stream-of-conscious raps, and transcended his fellow Wu-Tang peers as the group’s most decorated solo artist.
When Wu-Tang Clan released Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993, nobody thought Ghostface Killah would surpass his fellow members as the group’s most honorary visionary. Only twenty-three years old when the album dropped, Ghostface, born Dennis Coles, mostly lurked in the shadows throughout the record’s thirteen tracks. Although he introduced 36 Chambers with a blistering, politically charged, reference-loaded verse on “Bring Da Ruckus,” shouting out everyone from disgraced former president Richard Nixon to the P.L.O., the album’s spotlight mostly illuminated Method Man’s star-hugging charisma, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s unpredictable voice changes, RZA’s flawless production, or GZA’s undeniable leadership, and rightfully so. Upon its initial release, Ghostface never showed his face. Instead, he wore a mask which led many to speculate that the rapper was a wanted man, and once he legally cleared his name, the mask would be removed. Ghostface has since denied those claims, but nevertheless, the rapper’s stayed away from center stage, instead, letting other Clan members take the forefront.
Although Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… officially belongs in Raekwon’s solo cannon, Ghostface stands beside him not only on the cover art, but also on almost every track. Ghost raps bars on an astounding twelve out of fifteen tracks (not including the skits). On the immediate classic, “Criminology,” Ghostface kicks off the charge with a rap blending Wu’s philosophy with mafioso beliefs. He seamlessly references 36 Chambers and the movie Scarface when he raps:
“While I’ll be trapped by sounds, locked behind loops
Throwing ni**as off airplanes cause cash rules
Everything around me, black as you can see
Swallow this murder one verse like God Degree”
Ironman, Ghostface's a gritty debut album would follow suit. It not only gives listeners a detailed and, at times, an all-too-realistic peak inside the life’s of those who haunt the streets, but it also kickstarted one of the greatest five year runs of all time. Here, Ghost perfects his stream-of-conscious, word-salad type rhymes which would dominate his style throughout the rest of his career. During “Fish,” Ghostface twists the listener’s imagination when he raps:
“Grey Poupon is Revlon rap, smack pawns, swing like batons
Most my ni**as smoke like Hillshire Farms”
What other rapper can connect Dijon mustard with low quality sandwich meat and make it sound so damn hood? But word-salads aren’t Ghost’s sole weapon of choice. On Ironman, he refined his most prominent skill, the art of storytelling. The critical darling, “All That I Got Is You,” shows Ghost writing his mother a love letter for a much-needed cathartic release on an album overflowing with violence and dead-ends. Now matured with a “baby girl and three sons,” the track’s lone verse takes an introspective journey through Ghost’s past as he raps about the overwhelming poverty his family experienced which included cold winters, second hand clothes, and using a coat-hanger as the broken television’s antenna. A song about growing up poor isn’t unfamiliar territory for a rap song, but no rapper has painted the subject with such vivid tenderness.
When it came time for Wu-Tang's second album, the divisive double album Wu-Tang Forever, Ghostface arrived at the recording sessions in peak form, ready to claim the title of the group’s best rapper. The album features Ghostdini on eleven out of twenty-five tracks, and the man kills it every time he picks up the mic. On, “Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But The Money),” he spits a verse so long and detailed that RZA ends up fading him out.
The album’s defining point, and maybe Ghostface’s greatest verse ever, happens on “Impossible.” The song, which focuses on the dangers of street life, transcends when Ghostface opens his verse with the heartbreakingly honest, “Call an ambulance, Jamie been shot, word to Kimmy/Don’t go son, ni**a, you my motherfucking heart.” What follows is a tragic tale about Ghostface Killah comforting his best friend during his final moments of life.
“It can’t be, from Yoo-Hoo to Lee’s
Second grade humped the teachers, about to leave
Finally this closed chapter, comes to an end
He was announced, pronounced dead, ya’ll, at twelve ten.”
The verse received high acclaim from almost anybody who listened. It won “Verse of the Year,” at the 2007 Source Magazine Awards, and RZA declared it the “greatest Wu-Tang verse ever written,” in the Wu-Tang Manual.
Fully embracing the Tony Starks persona years before Robert Downey Jr., Ghostface gifted the world with an undisputed classic in the form of his second album, Supreme Clientele. Fresh back in the United States after venturing off to West Africa in search of a cure for his worsening diabetes, Ghost raps with an almost shamanic life view.
Supreme Clientele switches from hard-banging, street opus (“Mighty Healthy,”) to reminiscing about teenage love (“Child’s Play,”) without missing a beat. It’s Tony Starks at his most urgent, overflowing with broken, but somehow coherent images, such as “honey dipped spliffs,” “James Bond vans,” and “rap is like Ziti.”
At this point, Ghost could’ve easily cruised for the remainder of his career but, instead, he continued his resurgence as a prolific solo artist, releasing well-received efforts Bulletproof Wallets, The Pretty Toney Album and the classic, Fishscale in 2006.
With six masterpieces under his belt, he now rubs elbows with the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He’s transcended his genre with a discography which stacks up against any artist, and his influence reaches past the mainstream into today’s underground. Rappers in both the fringe and the mainstream, such as Childish Gambino, Earl Sweatshirt, and Action Bronson, all name the Killah as an influence. ScHoolboy Q’s last album, Blank Face, pays homage to Ghost’s former mask persona as does the record’s first single, “Groovy Tony.”
Ghost has spent his whole career tiptoeing the line between hip-hop underground and the mainstream, with music that appeals to the casual rap fan and hip-hop obsessives. Sure, everybody knows about Enter The Wu-Tang, but only serious listeners can tell you about the 2015 collaborative album he released with a jazz instrumental band from Ontario, Canada. While other 90’s hip-hop fan favorites fade into nostalgic glory, Ghost stays relevant with his ear tuned into music’s future. This 47-year-old superhero with a broken heart is clearly a GOAT.