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Holy Hell! Supreme Clientele Turns 20

Holy Hell! Supreme Clientele Turns 20

Supreme Clientele quintessentially embodies the spirit of hip-hop’s boundless possibilities.

In retrospect, the giddiness that runs through Supreme Clientele may be even more shocking than it must have been at the time. By 2000, the Wu-Tang Clan’s run of canonical group and solo records already felt like a distant memory in the wake of the fitfully brilliant but overstuffed Wu-Tang Forever. More pertinently, Ghostface Killah himself suffered a series of hardships, from losing two brothers to experiencing near-fatal complications from diabetes, to say nothing of doing six months at Rikers on a plea deal. The man who provided some of the most energetic force in the Wu had every reason to be burned out, for his soulful intensity to have dimmed from trauma.

Instead, he responded with his most beautiful and lyrically rich album, a record so full of inventive beats and intricate, baffling rhymes that it set a standard for what hip-hop could achieve in the new millennium that few albums since have approached. An effervescence runs through the album from the start, which transitions from a sample of the 1960s Iron Man cartoon to “Nutmeg,” which Ghostface wrote on a 1997 sojourn to Africa. Riding a jerky and arrhythmic beat from producer Black Moes-Art, “Nutmeg” brims with defiant joy, sidewinding through rhymes that make no narrative sense but delight in the oddity of juxtapositions like “Rock those big boy Bulotti’s out of Woodbridge/ Porch for the biggest beer, seasoned giraffe ribs.” Ghostface slips between autobiography, surrealism and braggadocio, at one point briefly quoting some of his verses on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx to remind everyone of how much he matched Raekwon on that masterpiece. With a smooth flow that defies the angular composition of the track, Ghostface sounds recharged and ebullient, trading the combative tone of early Wu-Tang records for playful silliness.

From there, the album launches through a string of songs heading all the way to “Apollo Kids,” if not “Buck 50,” that surely constitutes the greatest run on a hip-hop album of the 21st century. “Ghost Deini” again reaffirms Ghost’s evolution, mentioning “Ghost sold crack, now his revelations spoken through rap” even as he notes the lucrative success he’s enjoyed from switching to art. “Apollo Kids” is a masterpiece of inscrutability, referencing biographical details like a Wu-Tang show at the Beacon Theater where shots were fired, possibly from the Clan’s crew before lurching into truly bewildering statements like “this rap is like ziti, facing me real TV/ Crush at high speeds, strawberry kiwi.” Raekwon’s more grounded guest verse, which focuses on their drug game coming up and how they took over a block and sold rocks “freezing in velour, icicle galore” somehow only makes things stranger by introducing such concrete realism into Ghost’s elaborate, meaningless rhymes.

As much as these tracks play around with meter and images, however, there are hints of Ghost’s maturation as the result of his experiences. Quotations run rampant through the album, from the Wu’s own prior work to luminaries like Rakim, yet arguably none is as moving as the moment in “Ghost Deini” when Ghostface briefly interpolates the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” their tribute to the murdered Marvin Gaye, to rework around a salute to Biggie and Tupac, connecting one act of senseless violence that robbed us of a great talent to two more. “One” begins as a tale of Ghost’s days on the corner before gradually letting in some of his more harrowing recent developments, hiding a reference to his diabetic health scares in “Distract the cat while I’m high sugar get a crack at this” and referencing the track’s guest, T.M.F., as being in jail. “We Made It” is suffused not with the triumph of success but the weary relief of survival. After a first verse filled with defiant claims of the Wu-Tang Clan’s endurance, Ghost ends with a moment of humility in “We just dumb motherfuckers with our microphone out.” Chip Banks contributes a verse that makes direct reference to the weapons and bulletproof vest possession charges that got Ghostface locked up. Ghost and his guests trade off verses that note their success, but there’s a mirthlessness to the deliveries, hammered home by the whining, deflated way that Banks occasionally sings “We made it,” that saps all the usual boastfulness out of a “started from the bottom, now we here” track. Even its cartoon sample is a near thing, saying that Tony Stark “by just a thin thread of electric current wins another victory.”

This being Ghostface Killah, the reflective and the prankish often combine. “Malcolm” includes a sample of one of Malcolm X’s speeches while likening his own worldview to the activist’s, but he also blends Malcolm’s “eye for an eye” philosophy of black self-defense with a less severe attack on a rival rapper who dissed him, muddying the moral waters by justifying a punch to the mouth as meaningful retaliation for verbal disrespect. And the album’s last proper track, “Clyde Smith,” perched somewhere between a skit and song, is a barely disguised diss track on 50 Cent from Raekwon that responds to “How to Rob” with this disdainful screed that sounds, devastatingly, as disappointed in 50 Cent’s childishness as it does furious in its response.

There would be great Wu albums after Supreme Clientele, the majority of which carried Ghostface’s name on the cover, but never again would the Wu-Tang Clan sound so united and joyous, whether as guests on a member’s solo album or on their group LPs. RZA only fully produced six of the album’s tracks despite specifically putting his work on other Wu members’ records on hold to focus on this, yet his mixing of the entire record is respectful of the unique contributions of other producers while finding a holistic throughline to a cohesive sound. Likewise, the various guest MCs are as committed in their delivery of outstanding verses as Ghostface was on all of his own appearances for Wu and Wu-adjacent rappers. All of Ghostface is in this album: the storyteller, the soulful confessor, the man who could string together non-sequiturs so masterfully that his narratives slipped into Dada. Hip-hop has mutated into directions that scarcely could have been predicted in 2000, and in ways that are far removed from the sounds of this album. Nonetheless, Supreme Clientele quintessentially embodies the spirit of hip-hop’s boundless possibilities. Personal and political, minimal yet overwhelming, it contains multitudes that fans are still unpacking and puzzling over 20 years later.

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