By 1999, the almighty Wu-Tang Clan had begun to show chinks in their collective armor. Although they caused a seismic shift in the culture with their classic debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), released a slew of stellar solo albums, launched a successful clothing line (Wu-Wear), and dropped their highly anticipated, multi-platinum double album Wu-Tang Forever in 1997, the crew from Shaolin seemed to be faltering at the close of the 21st century.
As the pieces of the chessboard of hip-hop were repositioned and new voices emerged on the rap music landscape, the Wu-Tang Clan was, for the first time, not on the cutting edge of the culture. Additionally, the Clan was going through internal struggles over profits, management issues, and the overall direction of the group. They were also the subjects of a federal probe and were accused of running a criminal enterprise (allegedly, the Wu hired friends to purchase weapons in Ohio and bring them back to New York).
The Abbot of the squad, the RZA, suffered a professional catastrophe when his studio was flooded, reportedly losing 300-500 beats. He withdrew into his alter ego, Bobby Digital, and pivoted away from overseeing the next wave of Wu solo albums, leaving the tasks to be completed by his mentees — and it showed. The acclaim that the first four Wu solo albums received was met with an equal amount of disappointment by fans and critics alike. GZA's Beneath the Surface, ODB’s Nigga Please, Inspectah Deck’s Uncontrolled Substance, U-God’s Golden Arms Redemption, and Raekwon’s Immobilarity all had flashes of greatness, but they didn’t quite live up to the standard that the public had grown accustomed to.
But just when it seemed like all hope was lost, a superhero emerged from within the ranks of the Wu cosmology. Ghostface Killah — aka Tony Starks — came to save the day and bequeathed to the world a masterpiece: his second studio album, Supreme Clientele.
At the time, Ghost was at a crossroads in his personal life as well. He was beset with legal troubles, fighting diabetes, and did a four-month bid on Rikers Island for an attempted robbery conviction. Seeking solace, Ghost took his talents to Benin, heading to the West African nation to heal his physical and spiritual self. When the RZA visited him there, he too became inspired and reinvigorated, and both began writing the songs that would eventually wind up on Supreme Clientele.
If Ghostface kept the Wu’s momentum going with his debut (the exceptional Iron Man), then with Supreme Clientele, Tony Starks revitalized the floundering brand, and his ingenuity set the template for where East Coast hip-hop would pan out over the next several years, both sonically and lyrically.
Released on February 8, 2000, just as rap music was exploding and dominating the pop mainstream, Ghost took things back to the very foundation of hip-hop, utilizing break-beats, soul samples, and record scratching, which were antithetical to the popular sound of the time. Ghost expanded upon Iron Man’s winning formula with tales of boastful MCing, humorous hood stories, drugs, sex, pro-Blackness, and everything under the sun that spoke to the raw honesty and vulnerability from a man who was reborn in Africa.
What distinguished Supreme from the second round of Wu solo projects was the return of a missing ingredient: the RZA. He produced four tracks and four skits, and his fingerprints span the length and breadth of the LP as executive producer. The cinematic production was tailor-made for the wide-ranging exploits of Ghost; the obscure soul samples were a perfect complement to the cultural references and iconoclastic ideas that he presented. The organic chemistry between Ghost and RZA is a holy alchemy that catapults the project into classic status — in their hands, the LP is a cohesive and intricately sequenced work of art.
The RZA locks in on “The Grain” and “Buck 50,” featuring Method Man, Cappadonna, and a show-stealing verse by Redman with the gritty production formula that made him such an iconic craftsman. The scratching on “Stroke of Death” still ranks as one of his most uniquely produced songs, further cementing the RZA’s reputation as a GOAT beatmaker.
On “Nutmeg,” the sample of Eddie Holman’s “It’s Over” yields an adrenaline-filled opener that sets an energetic tone for the album, while “One” remains a fan favorite for its soulful simplicity. The haunting, eerie piano meshed with a classic breakbeat on “Mighty Healthy” is the essence of New York hip-hop production — and only Ghost could flip a disco song into a Wu club hit on “Cherchez LaGhost.”
While the pleasures of the sonic schemata of Supreme are manifold, the undisputed star of the show is Ghost's lyricism. Already renowned for his distinct nomenclature, Supreme finds Ghost embarking on a no-holds-barred lyrical adventure, action-packed with Ziti raps and eight-ravioli-bag flows. With utter grandiosity, idiosyncratic cadences, and uncanny unorthodoxy, Ghost attacked the English language with a reckless abandon, presenting his unique verbal wizardry like the concoction of a mad scientist locked away in a lab in the Stapleton houses.
On “One,” for example, Ghost spits: "Ayo, crash thru, break the glass, Tony with the goalie mask / That's the pass, heavy ice Roley layin on the dash / Love the grass, cauliflower hurtin when I dumped the trash / Sour mash surgeon, heavy glass up at the Wally bash / Sunsplash, autograph blessin with your name slashed / Backdraft, four-pounders screamin with the pearly hats.”
Ghost’s abstract lyricism put him in a class entirely his own. Over the course of the album, his prolific use of slang and his over-the-top personality sets him apart from the rest of rap's landscape. He unveiled the complexity of his lyrical arsenal with ingenious rhyme patterns that raised a new standard for MCing. High brow and hilarious, no bar is wasted.
There was a lot riding on the success of Supreme Clientele. The legacy of the Wu-Tang Clan was in question with the FBI placing them in their crosshairs, while Ghost was literally in a battle for his life. The stakes were high. Draped under the intensity of these circumstances, Ghost came out victorious with his magnum opus.
If RZA is the leader, GZA the intellectual, ODB the wildcard, Method Man the smooth operator, and Raekwon the chief exhibitor of style, then without question, Ghost is the soul of the Clan. Just when the Wu-Tang dynasty seemed to be on the brink of disaster, with impeccable timing, Supreme Clientele was a bold pronouncement that the Wu was striking back with a vengeance.
The influence of Supreme is a testament to its brilliance. Ghost curated an album that served as a conduit in hip-hop from the techno-driven sound of Timbaland and Swizz Beatz to the sped-up soul samples that would soon come to define the work of Just Blaze and Kanye West. Ye himself said: “Really, we were making all those beats for Ghostface. Me and Just love Ghostface so much... and [he's] one of my favorite rappers, we get so inspired by his albums. He was the only dude coming out with something worthwhile with Supreme Clientele.”
Some Wu fans may argue that Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, or even Ironman are the group’s best solo efforts. But Supreme accomplished what the other albums did not; it was distinctly Wu in its orientation with a universality that transcended the Wu galaxy. You didn’t have to be an expert in karate flicks or be a 5 percenter to understand that Supreme was an extraordinary record. It had broad appeal without sacrificing its Wu-ness — a rare balance for Wu solo projects.
Twenty years later, not only is Supreme Clientele the best Wu solo LP, but it’s also one of the greatest bodies of work in hip-hop history.