Ironman sold 156,000 copies in its first week and debuted at number two and number two on the Billboard 200 and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, respectively. It was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on January 8, 1997, and by February 9, 2004, it had earned a platinum certification for shipping one million copies in the United States. Many music critics have praised the album for Ghostface Killah's imaginative lyricism and RZA's production style, with some revering it as one of the greatest Wu-Tang solo albums of all time.
Although a solo album, Ironman features many Wu-Tang collaborations and only four tracks feature Ghostface performing as the sole rapper. The two most prominently featured artists are Raekwon and Cappadonna, who both accompany Ghost and have their names on the album's cover. Raekwon appears on 13 of the 17 tracks, with "The Faster Blade" featuring him performing solo.
As opposed to earlier Wu-Tang solo projects, in which the performers involved were believed to be infallible, Ghostface is somewhat vulnerable on several of the album's songs. This is perhaps best illustrated on the single, "All That I Got Is You", which is essentially a tribute to his mother. However, the rest of the album contains many street oriented, and organized crime topics, similar to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., in which Ghostface was heavily involved. Ironman contains more of Ghostface Killah's highly praised unique uptempo, stream-of-consciousness rhyming style, which he would go on to further utilize on his highly acclaimed second studio album Supreme Clientele. The album also features a substantial amount of story-telling rap, such as the song "260." Producer RZA combines his dark keyboard tones and early-1970s soul samples, heavily used on Only Built for Cuban Linx... and Liquid Swords respectively, to engender a soulful and melodic, yet dark and harsh feel that later influenced many other Wu-Tang releases, such as Wu-Tang Forever and Uncontrolled Substance, as well as numerous other East Coast artists.
In his book The Tao of Wu, producer RZA points out that Ghostface's voice sounds noticeably different on Ironman from previous Wu-Tang releases. This is because Ironman was released following a flood that destroyed the basement studio in which those recordings were made. RZA had set up individual microphone preamps and compressors for each member, which were destroyed in the flood. Thus, the vocals on Ironman had to be recorded in a different studio with different equipment and settings, which slightly altered their sound.
In a positive review for The Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau said that despite morally questionable actions in Ghostface Killah's narratives, "the detail is so vivid and complex that for once we get the gripping blaxploitation flick gangsta [rap] promises rather than the dull or murky one it delivers ... Most decisive of all, RZA's music is every bit as literal as Ghostface's rhymes and rap, giving up tunes, even hooks."Jon Pareles, the chief music critic for The New York Times, wrote in his review of the album, "Anger is just a stimulant for Ghostface Killah. On Ironman he raps about male bonding, the mating game and the violent ups and downs of the drug trade, in a voice raised just above the tone of conversation."Vibe columnist The Blackspot hailed the album as "proof of his matured lyrics and delivery and the Wu's strong family stand. If Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... had you open, prepare for another gaping wound." In Spin magazine, Chris Norris wrote "Ghostface wreaks havoc with meaning and narrator reliability, flitting from gangster-film intrigue to grimly prosaic reality." Norris also praised RZA's production, stating "As usual, the Wu's sonic auteur provide awesomely dark and eccentric backdrops for the MC's dark maneuvers, mixing soul horns with horror-film keyboards."The Source took note of the album's "intense emotional moments" and stated, "The RZA does another masterful job, topping himself in terms of sonic diversity."Q magazine was less enthusiastic and felt the songs are "more about lyrical finesse than anything else".
In a retrospective review for AllMusic, senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that "the mood of the album can switch tones at the drop of the hat. The record is filled with inventive production and rhymes, and ranks as another solid entry in the Wu-Tang legacy."Stephen Thompson from The A.V. Club praised RZA's production, stating "Just as Terminator X was Public Enemy's secret weapon, The RZA is The Wu-Tang Clan's. Producer RZA, quietly working behind the scenes, has been the force behind Wu-Tang's raw, all over the map, Bruce Lee-meets-Gladys Knight sound. RZA has done it again on Ghostface Killah's Ironman." Thompson further stated "Attacking from all angles, Ironman is classic Wu-Tang, piecing together something unpredictable and vital-sounding."