Ghostface Killah is the Wu-Tang Clan’s most prolific emcee. The Staten Island microphone killer (killah?) has released 14 studio albums since debuting with Ironman in 1996. He’s co-starred as Raekwon’s partner in crime on both of his Wu-Tang teammate’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx albums and contributed countless verses on albums and guest appearances on various Clan-affiliate albums. In just the last 12 months, he’s released three full-length records: 36 Seasons, the BadBadNotGood collaboration Sour Soul and Twelve Reasons to Die II, his second album with producer and composer Adrian Younge.
More importantly, however, Ghostface Killah (or Tony Starks or Pretty Toney or Wally Champ, if you prefer) is the most consistent of the Wu-Tang family, having sustained a mostly outstanding output for two solid decades, including the bona fide classics Supreme Clientele and Fishscale.
He’s a dexterous wordsmith and a lyrical surrealist, often stringing together seemingly unrelated phrases into strangely perfect Dadaist poetry. He revisits various themes throughout his work, from Marvel Comics to food, Islamic teachings and gritty crime narratives. The man could easily warrant his own Cliff’s Notes volumes, and given how much annotation there is on his Genius.com pages, he kind of already does.
Sometimes it takes a bit of digging, but there are nuggets of wisdom to be found in his peculiar, albeit unforgettable verses. Listen to any song from throughout his career and you’re likely to glean some important life lesson, pieces of sage advice or food for thought. Ghostface Killah is a post-modern philosopher. He may not always make literal sense, but such is the burden of a visionary. Here are some of the important life lessons we can take away from Ghostface Killah’s lyrics:
“I seen rubies, diamonds, smothered under octopus/ jellyfish, sharks soar, aquaproof pocketbook” - “Underwater,” 2006
In the context of “Underwater,” Ghostface finds himself in a surreal underwater scene in which SpongeBob SquarePants drives a Bentley Coupe and listens to the Isley Brothers. But there are treasures galore in this aquatic scene, both literally and figuratively. He encounters mermaids and finds what sounds very much like pirate booty in the briny deep. And he might have forgotten it all, had he not brought that trusty “aquaproof pocketbook” to document the scene before him.
Conclusion: Always be prepared.
“People saying that my chains look truck on me/ But what about the Wonder Woman bracelet?/ Two-oh point three diamond cut engraved rubies kid, I laced it! ” - “Ice Water,” 1995
Listeners of hip-hop since Slick Rick’s day will know something about truck jewelry: Big, flashy chains, rings or bracelets, usually gold. But it hasn’t been so prevalent in hip-hop fashion since the ’80s and early ’90s.
This isn’t of consequence to Ghostface, who marches to the beat of his own 808, and is often photographed with his large Wonder Woman-style bracelet, complete with golden eagle perched on it. Ghostface owns his unique, unconventional style.
Conclusion: Be yourself.
“The kid with the most knowledge will obtain and touch top dollars” - “Ghost Deini,” 2000
Throughout his career, from his co-starring role on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx to his standout 2006 album Fishscale, Ghostface has used criminal narratives—usually selling coke, sometimes armed robbery—as both a storytelling device and a metaphor for his own ascent in the rap game. Those stories are often fabular in nature, and the stream-of-consciousness “Ghost Deini” puts simply the important lesson that it takes smarts to succeed.
Conclusion: Knowledge is power.
“Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did Judas rat to Romans while Jesus slept?” - “4th Chamber,” 1995
Ghostface doesn’t always supply those nuggets of wisdom without requiring his pupils to do a little bit of the mental work to reach the conclusion on their own. Here, Ghost asks a series of both answerable and unanswerable questions, as if offering a series of Zen koans. (“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” didn’t make the cut, I guess?) Now, there’s actually a well-established reason for why the sky is blue, but that’s beside the point. His philosophical ponderings simply demand that the listener think deeper and be more inquisitive.
Conclusion: Question everything.
“Ayo this rap is like ziti, facing me real TV, Crash at high speeds, strawberry kiwi” - “Apollo Kids,” 2000
So, what Ghost is saying here is… nope, I have no idea. But it sounds great when he says it. On his 2000 album Supreme Clientele, Ghostface often disappears into a Dadaist wormhole of wordplay that ends up a euphonious string of non-sequiturs. His flows come fast and disorienting, to the extent that you might not even notice that it doesn’t really make sense.
Conclusion: Something about food, I guess? No that’s not right. Oh! Art can exist for its own sake. (Right?)
“This is architect music, verbal street opera” - “The Champ,” 2006
Admittedly, Ghost is mixing his metaphors here a little, but no matter. His message is clear: He holds his craft to the standard of both a highly skilled trade and an elite art form.
Conclusion: Ghostface Killah is a master of his craft.
Ghostface Killah plays Dec. 17 at Observatory North Park