Sunday, June 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Wu-Tang Forever" by the Wu-Tang Clan

The Wu-Tang Clan were absolutely incredible. In the 1990s, there was no-one in the hip-hop world who could match them. It may be a decade and a half since their heyday, but what a heyday it was.

As much as anything else, the Wu-Tang were a great idea, a marketing and artistic strategy whose genius fell in recognising the opportunity that existed in the music business at the time, an opportunity that has since passed.

In brief, the Wu-Tang Clan were a crew of nine highly talented MCs led by the highly intelligent RZA. In addition to being a first-class MC and a revolutionary producer whose beats formed an instantly recognisable sub-genre, the RZA was also a clever business impresario who used the Wu-Tang Clan's excellent début Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to establish the MCs`personalities before spinning them all off on a series of solo careers on different record labels, each launched with CDs helmed at the production desk by the RZA and featuring the majority of Wu Tang MCs as 'guest artists'. This led to a rush of classic albums: one in 1994, three in 1995 and one in 1996 - a burst of productivity with few parallels in contemporary music. While no single record label would ever agree to saturate the market like this, having the MCs signed to competing labels meant that each label was pleased to assertively promote their individual piece of the Wu-Tang phenomenon, to each other's detriment perhaps but to the benefit of the clan themselves and hip-hop fans as well.

The problem with this strategy, perhaps the only problem in an otherwise faultlessly clever idea, is that it would inevitably build up expectations for the group-centred follow-up. Indeed, the wait between the début and the follow-up was four long years - and had they let the band simmer a little longer, they might have found it all but impossible to deliver a follow-up not doomed to disappoint.

As it was, it was already difficult, not only because of the expectations the sequence of solo albums had raised but because within the rap game the vogue was double-albums, a trend begun a year and a half previously by 2Pac and his epic All Eyez on Me. With nine talented MCs to fill the discs, the Wu-Tang Clan would probably have sounded uninspired with a mere 75-minute sophomore album.

What we got, then, was simultaneously more and less than the other hip-hop doubles. At 110 minutes and 3 vinyl discs, it was no slouch, but it was not really a double-CD. The rather genius move of adding an 'enhanced' CD-ROM element that all these years later seems embarrassing allowed them to present the album as having a multimedia 'bonus' while actually pawning off one-and-a-half CDs of music as a double-with-extras. And while there is more than enough in the way of trademark RZA beats and ensemble rapping to keep the hardcore plenty satisfied, the album also farms out eight tracks to assistant producers and presents four solo tracks and two tracks featuring no Wu MCs whatsoever. Considering that the intervening 'solo albums' were all produced in toto by the RZA and featured 'guest' Wu MCs on almost every track, they could actually stake a claim to be more legitimately 'Wu-Tang' projects than the current album.

But time has been kind to this album. Looking back on it, it's a very strong package, with consistently good RZA beats (even the ones helmed by others), heavy on the sloppy drama and the cinematic sense of mystery, and a jaw-dropping amount of 'science' delivered by some of hip-hop's best MCs at the peak of their abilities. It captures its audience on its own terms and shows very little interest in courting 'crossover' success: it's low on hooks, chart-friendly choruses, recycled R&B hits and gimmicky 'special guests'. it proves something that should be obvious: hip-hop can stand on its own merits just fine when the standard of quality is as high as it is here.

The main problem with Wu-Tang Forever is the very problem that this site consistently explores: how songs can get lost in the shuffle when presented in an overlong package. With nine MCs and an endless list of 'killa beez' associates, the Wu-Tang Clan would never have a problem with volume - this could have been a five-CD set if they'd wanted - but the net result of bloat is that focus is lost and albums tend to become mere mixtapes: a lesson RZA and his crew seem to have learnt, since they never again attempted a double-CD.

Wu-Tang Forever

Side one
  1. Reunited (5:21)
  2. Hellz Wind Staff (4:52)
  3. Visionz (3:09)
  4. As High as Wu-Tang Get (2:37)
  5. Severe Punishment (4:49)
  6. Bells of War (5:11)
Side two
  1. Triumph (5:37)
  2. Impossible (4:28)
  3. For Heaven's Sake (4:13)
  4. Black Shampoo (3:49)
  5. The City (4:05)
  6. A Better Tomorrow (4:55)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Wu-Tang Forever, Single-Disc Version «

Wu-Revolution: lose

This just isn't a very good idea - the members of the Wu-Tang Clan are all adherents of the Five Percent Nation religion, and as such have a kind of 'wise man' teacher among them, someone called Popa Wu. Popa Wu is not a rapper, merely someone who can expound on Five Percenter teachings with a preacher's cadence. No matter how alluring the RZA's backdrop happens to be, the point remains that giving over five minutes of your album - the first five minutes no less - to a preacher is a phenomentally bad idea, and I don't know why anyone would listen to this more than once.

Reunited: keep (side one, track one)

This is much more like it. If you were to write a book on the topic of 'why the RZA is a genius', this brilliant beat, robotic with a clanging sound like an acoustic guitar and with a pretty incredible violin line over top, is just jaw-dropping. Before anybody even says a word (excepting the female vocalist swearing over and over again), the RZA's cast a spell. Then he opens his mouth, rapping a verse alongside the GZA, the Ol' Dirty Bastard (in maybe his best performance on the whole disc) and Method Man: four MCs at their peaks on the album's real introduction. And a damn fine one it is.

As I say, this is the real introduction. Attention-grabbing and purpose-stating, an obvious shoulda-been track one actually takes that position on my shortened version.

For Heaven's Sake: keep (side two, track three)

Within a few years sped-up R&B vocal samples would be de rigueur, but here the warbled track title is merely one of many unsettling elements in a RZA stew thick with details. The MCs chant the clan's name between verses provided by the less famous Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa, and the semi-member Cappadonna. Placing this track so early in the lineup is a rather obvious attempt to raise the profile of these lesser members, which is a remarkably generous thing for the RZA and the other 'stars' to do.

It might have made sense to keep this on side one as it is on disc one of the original. But timing issues put it on the b-side, where it fits in smoothly as my track three.

Cash Still Rules / Scary Hours: lose

It's tough to pin down exactly why, but this ostensible 'C.R.E.A.M.' sequel, the first non-RZA track on a Wu-Tang album, is quite underwhelming. Method Man is good as usual, Ghostface Killah keeps rapping even after the beats have ended and he's being faded out, but it's all quite charmless. Just filler, really, and sad to see filler so early on the album.

Visionz: keep (side one, track three)

This brief track is an Inspectah Deck production - showing that the RZA wasn't the only WU-Tang member with musical skills. It sounds a lot like the RZA, frankly - which, of course, is a very good thing. The track is barely three minutes, and the brevity helps it out, giving it.focus. It's quite successful, all told.

My side one starts and ends with two longer epics, leaving two shorter 'pop' pieces in the middle. This, then, is track three.

As High as Wu-Tang Get: keep (side one, track four)

A messy, grimy little vignette with a 'sung' chorus by ODB, it's all over in two and a half minutes. Impressionistic gibberish, really, regardless of that the GZA and Method Man are saying. I'm not so sure why I included this - it wouldn't have made much difference if I'd dropped it. But I think it brought something to the mix that would otherwise be absent. The Clan points out a few times here that they don't bait their tracks with smooth R&B choruses. True enough - and to add insult to injury, instead you get the Ol' Dirty Bastard growling out a sad parody of an R&B hook. Classic.

As I said above, it's the two shortest tracks on my single-length that I include in the middle of side one, side by side. This is track four, following 'Visionz' just as it does in the double.

Severe Punishment: keep (side one, track five)

Another old-school hip-hop joint, punctuated not with a singer but with a blackly humorous kung-fu sample and underpinned not by a warm R&B sample from years gone by but from a starkly simple beat, merely drums and noises. This would be boring as sin if it weren't for the MCs, compelling and on top form. On this album, songs really do live and die by their MCs: the RZA and his protégés work hard keeping the beats fresh throughout, but when the rappers are on form, the end result is compelling. And when they're not, it's not. Here, thankfully, they are.

Track five on side one means this is the third of a three-song segment lifted from the double intact. Since the whole double is a suite of songs woven together as opposed to fading out and fading in again, a ten-minute chunk of the original gives a sense of the flow as the RA originally programmed it.

Older Gods: lose

A Ghost/Rae joint with an additional GA verse, produced by 4th Disciple and probably a solo track requisitioned for the double - it's filler, mostly. 4th Disciple's beats don't inspire and the MCs have the requisite energy but it's not in service of anything overly exciting.

Maria: lose

The Wu-Tang Clan don't seem to like 'bitches', i.e. the other half of the human race, very much. This is a lot of sex talk, but it's vulgar and childish as hell - not surprising, I guess, since much of this is Ol' Dirty. But it's not appealing. Not in any way. I doubt I would have liked this even when I was 12 years old.

A Better Tomorrow: keep (side two, track six)

So why exactly did the notoriously control-freakish RZA farm out the beat on eight different tracks on this album? An obvious answer was merely that he couldn't keep up, burnt out from too many projects and probably working to a tough deadline. But another answer might be that, presented with tracks like this, he realised he had no choice. The quality of this track is stunning: without a single R&B star trilling a throwaway melody, 4th Disciple and the five MCs on this track (mostly the lesser stars shining in combination) put together a rap track that is in every respect a 'song', with verses, a chorus and a dramatic tension the equal of any great classical piece. The philosophical discussion the MCs hold regarding the effects of a wasted ghetto life are illustrated perfectly by the simple piano-led beats behind them. Magnificent.

This so clearly deserves to be the final track that on the double I have no idea what it's doing on disc one. An overarching meditation on the future and on the themes of the album, it's a great enough song to conclude the entire package.

It's Yourz: lose

'Boomin', I guess. A macho thumper with a shouted chorus and with plenty of crowd samples. I guess it's meant to be fan-friendly, but it seems overly agressive to no real end. It's ultimately a bit boring, and it's a rather bizarre final track for side one, ending the first disc on an underwhelming note.

Intro: lose

As a start to the second CD, the RZA and the GZA babble for two minutes about themselves and about the state of hip-hop. Unlistenable.

Triumph: keep (side two, track one)

Whatever criticism you want to level at the Wu-Tang Clan, you can't say they lack in marketing acumen. Coming back after a lengthy spell away with an OTT double CD is all well and good, but you still need to hit radio with a bold announcement of your return. And that's 'Triumph', five and a half minutes and not a second wasted. Every MC in the entire clan (plus Cappadonna and, effectively, minus ODB who merely plays a trickster role here) bites into their thirty-odd seconds as if their lives and future careers depend on it. A brief showcase for every individual MC, but forming like Voltron as they do, the end result is a mass project - a barrage of voices dropping science. Masta Killa says, 'the dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum' - a diss that is levelled at me as much as anyone else out there; I'm quite able to tune out words on a hip-hop track and just nod my head to the beat. No chance this time out though - 'Triumph' gives you nothing to hang your hat on. Not a chorus, not a hook, not a sample... nothing, which is why it was bold as hell to release it as the opening single from the album. But it makes its point clear as day: this is a defiantly old-school celebration of verbal skills. Take it or leave it.

After the 'intro', this is the first track of the second CD. It's a lapel-grabbing call to arms, and it makes sense as a side-starter. So it's side two, track one here.

Impossible: keep (side two, track two)

This intense four and a half minute epic, produced by 4th Disciple, is a moody Beethoven-sampling monotone peppered with an improvised sung chorus of 'you can never defeat the Gods'. It's good, but the success of this track has little to do with its beats: it's all about three MCs at their absolute peak. Freed from production duties, the RZA puts together a remarkably dense verse to remind listeners that there are two things he's very good at. The underutilised U-God follows, with an equally dense breathless rush of words. On any other track, these twoverses would be highlights, but they're merely a warm-up for Ghostface Killah's verse, a devastating example of 'method rapping' where he playes the role of a person whose friend has been shot and is breathing his last. Ghostface's verse is considered by some to be one of the very best in hip-hop, and it's absolutely stunning, visceral and real in a way rap rarely gets. It's amazing.

'Triumph' doesn't even end: it just lurches into this song. And separating them would give Triumph the most brutal of an edit. Luckily I don't have to: I keep these Siamese twins together by putting this track as side two, track two.

Little Ghetto Boys: lose

Excepting its 'skit' intro, this track features only Raekwon and Cappadonna - well, and Donny Hathaway, via extensive samples from his 1970s hit of the same name. This is the one track on the whole album most reliant on its R&B sample - to the extent that the sample really carries the track. Yes, it has that creey, unsettling feeling that makes it trademark RZA, but it's more showy than compelling. It's good, but it's not a highlight.

Deadly Melody: lose

It's tough to say anything bad about this - it's intense as hell, four minutes without even a pause for breath, unrelenting verse after verse, with almost every member of the Wu-Tang chipping in and a few Killa Beez too. The beats are good... why am I not including a track I can't find anything bad to say about? Mostly just because there are so many of these already on this disc. That's not quite a criticism of the disc, except to say that en masse these kinds of 'posse' cuts get a sense of sameyness about them. Which is why we trim them, right?

The City: keep (side two, track five)

A solo Inspectah Deck track with an outside producer, this was probably never intended for the double but was probably requisitioned from another project at the last minute to flesh it out. Doesn't matter - it's still pretty great, a woozy, creepy crawl of a backdrop based on Stevie Wonder's 'Living for the City' behind Inspectah Deck, emanating charisma and discipline. Wasting disc space on solo tracks for established solo stars would be regrettable disc-padding, but in this case it's a useful showcase, giving much-needed mic time to the Wu-Tang Clan's most underrated member. With bleak keyboards groaning and squealing across the range of hearing, its unsettling mood is a highlight of the disc.

I give this track the crucial role of 'lead-in to the final track' as disc two track five. By sheer coincidence it puts two solo joints, U-God's and Inspectah Deck's, back to back.

The Projects: lose

Another creepy piano-based beat here, grumpy and erratic. It's quite listenable, really - and for a few minutes the MCs on top are listenable too - Method Man in particular is great. At a certain point while compiling my single-disc version I found myself choosing between this track and 'Impossible', difficult as it is to imagine that. Since it's Ghostface Killah's verse, third and final, that wins inclusion for that track, it's fitting that it's Ghostface's verse, third and final, that loses it for this one: ugly, charmless sex talk, it's like 'Maria' but worse. Ghostface's verse is all but unlistenable and destroys an otherwise fine song. Lest you think I suffer from some king of prudish sex phobia, let me assure you that I have no problems listening to people rap about sex. So long as they do it well.

Bells of War: keep (side one, track six)

A lazy stroll of a song. U-God, Method Man, the Rza and Ghostface Killah lay down verses that are perhaps not their best but are in each case great introductions to their styles as rappers. Since this song is so committed to taking its own sweet time, its gets two breaks where the beat merely continues over random dialogue - first time out about boxing, second time out bravado about the CD in question. Filler, yeah, but in service of beats that have created a mood and in between MCs who are successfully able to expand on that mood. It's pretty good, all told.

This mellow piece is a great way to finish off a side, and here it finishes off side one as track six.

The M.G.M.: lose

True Master produces this brief song in RZA style, but the flow is what catches the attention: making like Run-DMC, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah 'tag team' the lyrics in 'double trouble' fashion, finishing each other's lines. The 'tag team' metaphor makes more sense talking wrestling than talking boxing, but it's the latter that is the subject matter. It's nice to hear the two MCs working so closely together, but otherwise the song has little to recommend it. It's mostly just a quick little filler, perhaps also requisitioned from another project to fill out the disc.

Dog Shit: lose

Let's not speak ill of the dead: Ol' Dirty Bastard was the best out there at what he did. It's just that I'm not quite sure what it is exactly that he did, except perhaps performance art of the highest quality. But let's be honest: he's an acquired taste. His sense for an earworm is impressive, and some of his greatests solo joints are amazing. But overall he's the odd man out in the Wu-Tang Clan, a crew of MCs at their best when freestyling a jaw-dropping ornate flow over complex cinematic beats. ODB was arguably less capable an MC than the others, and overcompensated with his OTT goofball routine. But like Flavor Flav, it wears thin without a straight man to play off - so while a little ODB goes a long way, a solo number is less enchanting. This is tiresome filler.

Duck Seazon: lose

This song just goes on forever. Not that its shy-of-six-minute running time is all that unprecedented (it's shorter in fact, since it includes a kung fu sample at the end), but its chorus-free intensity makes it seem that much longer. Which is not a bad thing - no MC bores here, and their uptempo agression contrasts nicely with the lazy two-note guitar line behind them. It's, granted, more than a little repetitive. And ultimately it's a bit samey, sounding like too many other sings on this disc and so not finding any way to stand out. And on a less-than-half distillation, its running time really is a strike against is.

Hellz Wind Staff: keep (side one, track two)

A kung-fu epic, this track samples some martial arts fighting (at the end of a longer sample illogically sequenced at the end of 'Duck Seazon') but then rather ingeniously takes its metallic scrapes and rattles and turns them into the song's main beats, with the result that the entire piece has a messy cinematic quality to it - those being the two adjectives most often used to describe the RZA's early-years productions, though rarely in combination. The lyrics are pretty great stuff, even if it's so steeped in mythology that I have no idea what anyone is talking about. It's mostly just a tribute to the Wu-Tang mystique. Though what's wrong with that, when the MCs are this good?

I put this as track two of side one because I think it really encapsulates what the Wu-Tang Clan are, and after the strong opening statement of 'Reunited', it makes sense to look at who exactly this group are - and have been, since its kung-fu obsessions and deliberately sloppy feel hearken back to the début. Obviously I'd prefer for the actual Wu Tang vs. Shaolin sample to appear before this track.

Heaterz: lose

They're all running together by now. Another one, same level of quality. What to say about it? It's good, but 'good' sometimes isn't good enough. It doesn't resonate enough for me, and the ridiculous little 'skit' at the end of it (even if it's probably designed to lead into 'Black Shampoo') is just silly.

Black Shampoo: keep (side two, track four)

I might just be contrary, really. I reject songs throughout for sex content and then include this track, much maligned as limp. And sure, this U-God solo track is much 'softer' than the rest of the CD, from U-God's soft-spoken flow to the spongy cushions behind him (with odd string samples and even the wackest of 808 percussion sounds every now and then). But the thing is that it's entirely suitable. Subjecting your sex-talk to the same strident nihilism and dischord as your tales of life on the streets presents a sadly aggressive and unpleasant form of sexuality. This, on the other hand, is a refreshing change of pace, compelling in the way it stands out from everything else. It gives U-God an individual persona (the band's Lothario) and, I contend, draws a sharp contrast with the exploitative vulgarity the other MCs deliver elsewhere. Just my opinion, mind you.

Placing this sore-thumb amid the bravado was a tough choice. I knew I wanted it towards the end, but it would have been a disappointing final track, and penultimate position tended to isolate the actual final track. So I wound up third from last, with two songs after it to recast the urban-drama spell.

Second Coming: lose

More than probably any other track on this collection, 'Second Coming' proves the the RZA was a seriously talented 'proper' musician, capable of creating lush instrumentation the equal of any other producer out there - no mere loop sampled from another source, the musical backdrop here is highly impressive. But it's put in service of a remake of 'Macarthur Park', rewritten with silly self-mythologising lyrics and sung by Tekitha. And therein lies the problem: it's not a Wu-Tang Clan song. Or at least if precedence on this album demonstrates that tracks featuring Wu-Tang MCs produced by outsiders can still be legit 'Wu-Tang clan' songs than this one can't. All told, pretty as it is, it does little more than break up the feel of the disc.

The Closing: lose

This time it's Raekwon babbling into a mic. The only thing I can say about this track is that it actually makes the first track on disc two listenable. A horrid way to end your two-cd epic.



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