Ghostface Killah’s ‘Supreme Clientele’ Turns 20
Supreme Clientele, the second solo album from core Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah, released on February 8, 2000, opens with the “Invincible Iron Man” theme from the 1966 animated series The Marvel Super Heroes. By this point, the emcee’s obsession with the comic-book character was well established. He’d named his debut record after the hero, and often referred to himself by a variation on the character’s real name, Tony Stark. The theme is followed up with another clip from the cartoon: “Iron Man,” a disembodied voice tells us, “may be doomed to die.”
That fatalism betrays Ghostface’s state of mind throughout much of the album’s production. Even before the 1996 release of Ironman, the emcee, then in his mid-20s, noticed an acute decline in his health. He suspected cancer, or HIV. “I was pissing all day, losing weight, dry mouthed and dizzy with blurred vision,” he would recall later. It turned out to be a severe case of type-2 diabetes. The sample in the album’s introduction goes on to describe the “strange secret which keeps [Iron Man]’s injured heart beating.” In Marvel comic books, this strange secret is often Vibranium, an element predominantly found in the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Ghostface himself was mistrustful of Western medicine, and in 1997 he sought treatment in a remote village in Benin.
It was a trip that would profoundly affect Ghostface and his landmark solo release to come. The rhymes on Supreme Clientele are dense, and his cadence had shifted dramatically since Ironman. Much more off-kilter, it serves to highlight the intense poetry in his lyrics. This is immediately obvious in the opening vocal offering, “Nutmeg,” the first track Ghostface wrote after arriving in Benin. “That’s a wild song,” he told the Source. “That shit’s one of the illest styles I ever came up with, because I had no music to write to.” Having been forced to craft rhymes a cappella, with substantially different outside influences than he was used to, Ghostface designed a new vocal style. The resultant album was a much more cerebral and challenging one than fans were expecting.
While production was stymied by a four-month stint Ghostface served at Rikers, the consequence of a 1995 nightclub incident, the references to crime, present in so much of his work are, for the most part, absent from Supreme Clientele. Gone too is the materialism typical of a lot of hip-hop from the era. “Fuck all this Tommy Hilfiger, Polo,” he told the Source. “They don’t give a fuck about none of that in Africa. … But over here, everybody wanna be better than the next one. Nah, it’s not like that over there. They might be fucked-up moneywise, but trust me, them muthafuckas is happy. … They got each other.” Inspired, he wrote a dizzying stream of consciousness about his life, his friends and his crew, and about Islam. He wrote about pop culture, life as a black man, Malcolm X, love and much more.
The instrumental component of Supreme Clientele is equally stunning. Ever the de facto leader of all things Wu-Tang, RZA assigned various associates to produce the other members’ solo projects during this era, but for Supreme Clientele he took the reins. The two artists always shared a deep creative connection. Ghostface was RZA’s roommate before the formation of Wu-Tang, and helped RZA in bringing the group together. RZA certainly isn’t responsible for every beat on Supreme Clientele — there are nine other people with producer credits on the record — but once all parties had handed in their beats, it was RZA who deconstructed each of them and rebuilt them from the ground up. This unusual approach is what makes the album feel so cohesive, and it’s RZA’s touches and flourishes that make it sound so undeniably Wu-Tang.
Twenty years later, it remains one of the best solo records the collective ever put out. That’s no mean feat: As of this writing, there have been 100 different Wu-Tang-related albums released since the early 1990s. Critics were almost entirely united in praise of Supreme Clientele, whose function within the Wu’s catalog was salutary. Before the album’s release, a slew of poor to middling solo ventures had begun to tarnish the group’s legacy; some reviewers even suggested the album saved Wu-Tang altogether. Vibe spoke of “Wu’s demise,” and said the album was “naysayer-silencing.” AllMusic called it “a step toward the Wu-Tang Clan’s ascent from the ashes of their fallen kingdom.” These days, given the group’s towering and lasting influence on culture — not only in hip-hop but in film, TV and elsewhere — that assessment seems like gross hyperbole. But Supreme Clientele’s heavyweight lyricism, pitch-perfect production and emotional weight all make for an album that sounds as brilliant today as it ever did.
Hugh Taylor is a freelance culture writer and part of the team behind KALLIDA Festival and Colder Tech Support on Threads Radio. You can find him on Twitter: @hdt_hugh.
Image: Ghostface Killah in 1997. Credit: Bob Berg/Getty.
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