Music Features

Parole Kids Live Rapunzel: 20 Years of Supreme Clientele

Beckett. Pynchon. Gaddis. Joyce. Barth. Proust. Burroughs. Wallace. Ghostface. Few other rappers could be so comfortably placed amongst those authors, their work so analogous to books like The Recognitions or Finnegans Wake in how they utilize words to convey meaning and emotion, overwhelming and abstract. On no album is this better evidenced than in 2000’s Supreme Clientele. If you’ve never heard it, let me give you a taste: 
 Cancún, catch me in the room eating grouper”
“Check out the rap kingpin, summertime, fine jewelry dripping
 Face to the box, I seen your ear twitching
 As soon as I drove off, Cap' came to me with three sawed-offs
 Give one to Rae', let's season they broth
 Lightning rod fever heaters, knock-kneed a Sheeba for hiva
 Diva got rocked from the receiver bleeder”
“Yo, check these up top murderers
 Snowy in the bezel as the cloud merges
 F.B.I. try and want word with this
 Kid who pulled out bust a shot up in the Beacon
 Catch me in the corner not speakin'
 Crushed out heavenly
 U.G. rock the sweet daddy long fox minks
 Chicken and broccoli, Wally's look stink”
“Picked up the broom thought I was Michael-in'
 West Brighton Pool, now I'm into Iron Duels
 Turn Nuns to Earth’s Whoopi, she at Allah school
 Inhale break beats of Hell A-Alikes propel parallel
 Duracell knot, you flash a burnt cell”
There are dense lyricists, and then there’s Dennis Coles.
Ghostface Killah’s sophomore solo effort is something you let wash over yourself, exactly in the spirit of stream-of-consciousness classics like Ulysses. It’s one of those monumental works of art that you know full well going into you’ll only ever be able to partially decipher. As Jeff Weiss pointed out in his tremendous retrospective essay about the album for Pitchfork back in 2017, “You can see, feel, and taste it, but it can only be decrypted to a point.” Though I was already familiar with Ghostface’s more conventional masterpiece FishScale (2006), I hadn’t yet experienced Clientele and was intrigued by Weiss’ article. I was still in college around that time as a Literature major, and was obsessed with, for lack of a better term, the “long-winded shit”: your Gravity’s Rainbow-s, your Infinite Jest-s, your Sound and the Fury-s, your J R-s and such. My favorite feeling to experience while studying was getting locked in this state of flow where what I was reading propelled right off the page and into my brain at a breakneck pace, even if it wasn’t easy or didn’t make complete sense. Some of my most rewarding, treasured moments of academia came from notoriously difficult novels. And upon learning of this fascinating chapter in the Wu-Tang solo saga, how the album was recorded after the RZA’s studio flooded and Ghost’s trip to Africa deeply affected his artistic outlook (I implore you to read Weiss’ piece to find out more), I came to obsess over Supreme Clientele the same way.
There is, of course, no shortage of challenging albums, either. It’s a badge of honor for music dorks to say they made it through Autechre’s elseq or Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind the same way it’s a badge of honor for literary nerds to say they finished War and Peace. But Supreme Clientele isn’t challenging because of a taxing runtime—it’s only an hour long. Rather, it’s challenging because of how it approaches language as a means of engagement. Nearly every track here rejects any preconceived notions of what a rap song is supposed to be about, or whether or not it even needs to be “about” anything—though, when you listen to these tracks, you still feel like something poignant is being said. 
This becomes apparent the moment the album’s 40-second introductory skit ends and Nutmeg begins, where Ghostface lets fly a barrage of splatter-paint verbiage and dome-scorching street vernacular: “Scientific, my hand kissed it/ Robotic, let's think optimistic/ You probably missed it, watch me Dolly Dick it/ Scotty Wotty copped it to me, big microphone hippie/ Hit Poughkeepsie, crispy chicken, verbs, throw up a stone, Richie.” Ghost’s iconic opening verse on Bring da Ruckus from the Wu’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is undeniable, sure, but the bars that announce Clientele’s arrival set the tone for the LP in a way no other hip hop album starter ever has. Those aren’t lyrics; they’re a fucking mission statement from the fifth dimension.
But what’s most amazing to me about Supreme Clientele is that, despite its unapologetic use of slang and its raw, neverending spools of lyrics that mercilessly fire at the listener from all angles, it never feels arduous. In fact, it’s bizarrely fun to listen to. There are plenty of hip hop albums with complex rhyme schemes, syllabic gymnastics, and surreal imagery that I haven’t returned to anywhere near as often as I have Clientele. It’s an album that gets its rocks off on puzzling and bewildering you while absorbing and entrancing you at the same time. Once it’s over, you desperately want to play through it again because you know Ghost told you something amazing. You’re just not quite sure what it was, and I’d be lying if I said I’ve completely figured it out myself.
And what’s the best compliment to otherworldly rhymes? Otherworldly production. Describing this album’s instrumentals is arguably trickier than describing its lyrics, which says a lot. It has shades of the RZA’s classic, off-kilter, sample-heavy beatmaking, which is hardcoded in the DNA of all Wu-based music, but it also isn’t completely exemplative of “old school” East Coast hip hop. If you asked me to place a year on Supreme Clientele after hearing it for the first time with no prior knowledge of its release date, I honestly don’t think I’d be able to give a definitive answer. The LP sounds metallic, crisp, and futuristic, but also strange, obtuse, and distorted. Look no further than the twisted, looped-into-oblivion record scratch that makes up the entirety of the beat on Stroke of Death—a favorite of comedian Chris Rock, who quipped of that track, “It makes you want to stab your babysitter.”
Indeed, I’m not sure if there’s been another rap album quite like Supreme Clientele since it dropped at the turn of the new millennium. There certainly wasn’t one before it. A lot has changed about the culture of hip hop in the two decades since it came out, but Clientele stands timeless as an indestructible minaret of verse that no artist dare try to topple. It’s a Portrait of the Rapper as an Unstoppable Force. As Tony Stark. As Iron Man.