The ever supportive Phil Wilson (@Philmatic_) is always one of the first people in my mind who I will tweet for a debate bout Hip Hop. In our mini twitter circle he’s the OG, the wise sage who actually lived throughout the golden generation of the genre, where as I was just born at the time. It’s fitting then, that for this guest review special, he’s picked the new Wu-Tang Clan comeback album – and as ever, he’s flexing his knowledge and writing skills, that are also exhibited over on http://flavasofhiphop.blogspot.co.uk/, check out the review below:
I first got introduced to the Wu-Tang Clan during some late night channel surfing some summer night in 1998 as I was just starting to really get into Hip Hop. The incessant changing of channels finally took a break as I landed on MTV and spent the next few minutes trying to figure out why the hell Beavis and Butthead was such a popular show. Then something happened. They played the Triumph video.
This was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard before – the beat had me instantly captivated and I was amazed by the variety of raw and extremely talented MCs on show, but also the way their different styles seamlessly melded together to create something special. The fact that I remember this moment so clearly 16 years later will probably give you an idea of how I feel about the Wu-Tang Clan.
Fast forward to January 2008 and I’ve eventually tracked down a copy of their last full album release, 8 Diagrams. I’ve purposely avoided listening to anything off the album until I got my hands on a physical copy and here I am, listening to it over and over again and hoping that something will finally click with me. Apart from a few half decent songs, nothing ever did and even the songs I enjoyed I haven’t touched in years. Something was very off about this album and all the chemistry that had been such a key element in their first 15 years had vanished and it pained me to see.
Looking back now, it’s clear that there was a number of contributing factors to the failure of 8 Diagrams, not least that it was their first album since the passing of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Looking at the solo albums released around that time as well only Ghostface was really releasing anything of high quality and there were rumours of fighting within the group. You got the feeling that not many of the Clan had their heart fully behind this project and it was clear that there was no cohesive vision for the end result.
In truth, the sour taste that was left in my mouth from 8 Diagrams coupled with being pretty unimpressed by Ron O’Neal and Keep Watch (which sound a lot better in the context of the album) meant that my anticipation for A Better couldn’t have been much lower a few months ago. It’s fitting then that the track which changed my whole outlook for this album is the one that starts things off!
Ruckus In B Minor reunites all ten members on the same track for the first time since 9 Milli Bros. from Ghostface’s 2006 album Fishscale. It’s not just for show either, this track absolutely bangs! From Inspectah Deck opening the track to Method Man’s slick hook, GZA’s show stealing tempo changing verse, RZA’s thumping beat and even the way they tastefully incorporated the late ODB’s vocals, everything about this song is a triumphant return to form. It announced that the Wu-Tang were back in business and this time they weren’t fucking around!
I still approached this project with a feeling of trepidation that perhaps this was a one off, but I needn’t have worried. Ruckus remains one of the strongest cuts on the album, but even on the weaker ones you can feel that their hearts are really in it and even if they weren’t all in the studio together recording at the same time there is a definite sense that they’re all working towards a common goal.
The album follows on from 8 Diagrams in one way and that is that RZA is experimenting with a wider variety of sounds than he did in the early days, but I feel that he was much more successful in this attempt than the last.
Felt is one of the more grimey tracks on the album, following on directly on from Ruckus and is reminiscent of the second track on The W – Careful (Click, Click) – in its tone and also through the use of a repeated phrase throughout.
On the other end of the scale we have songs like Preacher’s Daughter (with RZA doing a version of Son of a Preacher Man) and the title track A Better that features a soulful Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes sample while Meth, Masta Killa, Cappadonna and Raekwon drop some truth about the state of the world and how we can all help to push us towards improving the days ahead. On paper it sounds a bit preachy, but honestly it’s a fantastic uplifting track – the kind of one that you need every now and then, especially given how much we’re hearing about in the news on a daily basis.
Miracle is a track that I’ve heard a lot of talk about in recent weeks – mostly due to what people have dubbed a “Disney chorus” that seems to be universally hated. On first listen I found it pretty jarring myself, but the more I heard the song the more I grew to love it. The chorus is so ‘sweetness and light’, but the beat and the verses are some of the downright grimiest shit on the whole album. Personally I find that the harsh contrast between the sounds works brilliantly and the storytelling verses are harrowing and on point throughout. The end of the track as the beat takes a more electronic edge and the chorus gets some vocal filters while Ghost delivers passionate emotive rhymes the way that he does best is one of the standout moments to me. This is one RZA experiment that seems to have caught people off guard, but I would imagine that Cold World off Liquid Swords probably turned a few heads back in ’95 as well so I hope that given time people will grow to appreciate the track.
There are more Classic-Wu sounding tracks on here as well, Necklace being a prime example. 4th Disciple provides a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a late 90s/early 2000s Wu album while the repeated kung-fu vocal sample standing in for a hook is top notch and pure nostalgic bliss.
Never Let Go is the last proper song on the album – with Wu-Tang Reunion acting more as an outro – and it’s another one of the standout efforts to me. It blends old and new Wu brilliantly as we see the MCs dropping in lines from old songs while continuing the theme from the title track of looking forward. Even U-God can’t completely derail things with his ‘so bad it’s good’ line “When I’m in jail, never let go of the soap”.
On A Better we see the whole Clan reuniting for a common cause – the more famous members (Ghost, Meth, Raekwon) contribute brilliantly to the album – I actually prefer Ghost’s performance on here than on his recent solo album 36 Seasons where he seems to be a bit restricted by the concept, but that’s another story – while the members that had dropped off the radar a bit in recent years have really upped their game here. GZA sounds amazing in almost every verse he has (solo album please!) while Deck and Cappadonna also impress.
One criticism I’ve seen rumbling around online of the album from fans and even a sly dig from Method Man himself is that this is RZA’s album and he’s taken some things in directions that perhaps the whole Clan wasn’t happy with. There’s also been very little in the way of promotion from most members on social media which suggests that all isn’t as well as it might seem. My first response to that is that without RZA, there would simply be no Wu-Tang Clan. Him taking things in “his direction” is what gave us classics like 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, Tical, Cuban Linx, Forever… so if you ask me Bobby Digital has earned the right to experiment a bit and I really think he’s learned from his mistakes on their previous effort and for the most part hits all the right notes. Secondly, if hostilities still remain between some members they did a great job of concealing them on this record. This truly feels like a harmonious Wu-Tang reunion and if it’s the last album they ever make together I think it would be a worthy way to bow out. Even if I hope it isn’t the end!
I don’t think that the Wu-Tang Clan is going to win very many new fans with this album, nor have they reached the epic heights of their 93-97 run, but I think they’ve put together a very solid project that will be a treat for most existing Wu-Tang fans and fitting into that bracket myself I am sure I’ll be revisiting this one for years to come.