Ghostface Killah was chasing his life in 1997. He was 27 and sick with diabetes, and—thinking he had cancer—he went to the African nation of Benin with fellow Wu-Tang Clan member RZA, lived in a mud hut, was treated by a bush doctor, and came back with many of the staggering lyrics that decorate 2000’s Supreme Clientele. He sounds glad to be alive; he sounds totally freaked. In a time when everybody who ever delivered sandwiches for Wu-Tang seemed to be getting a solo deal, here Tony Starks, as he calls himself (he also calls himself the Black Boy George on “Stroke of Death”), makes everything stick. Even when you don’t know quite what he’s getting at, his abstract, detail-crammed narratives, often tinged with biographical asides, make for a vivid set of stories.
Producer RZA was wrestling with quality control. He’d just masterminded double album Wu-Tang Forever in 1997 and then sent out key members for solo projects, pairing them up with other producers. Ghostface Killah, however, he couldn’t bring himself to hand off, and RZA ended up producing more than half the songs here and revising the work of others. He offers an especially strong mix of his grime and besmirched classic soul. “Nutmeg” chops up a strings-and-flutes sample; “One” is a methodical track that repeats its monosyllabic titular number at the end of each line, screwing the lid down on Ghost’s anarchic verbiage. There are disses (on a skit and the song “Ghost Dini”) that got under 50 Cent’s skin, and appearances from strategic guest stars—including Raekwon, GZA, and Redman. Meanwhile, Ghostface Killah does anything for impact, with writing that feels like a Donald Goines paperback, Ip Man fan fiction, and several awkward pages of a coming-of-age memoir torn out of his notebook, all of it cut up and glued together for maximum emotional wallop.