Inspectah Deck - Uncontrolled Substance
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
On the surface, it would seem tough to be Inspectah Deck. Sure, there’s that whole fame-and-fortune thing, but let’s be real, it has to hurt a bit that that most people consider him at best the fourth or fifth-best rapper in the Wu. Not nearly as emotionally resonant and vocally complex as Ghost, lacking the shimmering fluidity of Meth or the scientific intricacies of the Genius, it’s better to think of the man born Jason Hunter as you think of Rollie Fingers: one of the greatest closers in history. The sort of guy you want facing the opposing team’s power hitter in the 9th with hard lights-out fastballs or 16 bars of controlled but forceful raps.
It was this fireman brilliance that made Deck stand out in the first place. Whether it was the 45-second Wu mission statement on the first single, “Proteck Ya’ Neck,” or the scene-stealing on “C.R.E.A.M,” Deck’s turns were the stuff of legend. Leading up to his 1999 solo debut, the erstwhile Rebel I.N.S. had already blazed the intro from “Guillotine (Swordz),” to the “chrome dipped lyrics known to split stone” of Big Pun’s “Tres Leches,” to the god-body 16 of “Above the Clouds,” where flanked by Premier’s ethereal bass lines and rattling dusty drums, he annihilates Guru. And of course, there was the jaw-dropping verse on “Triumph” often picked as the greatest Wu-Tang verse ever. Needless to say, expectations for Uncontrolled Substances were high. [Insert gong noise here]
There was only one problem. The album didn’t exist. It was supposed to. Hell, rumors claimed that the thing was finished in ’95. Finally, as the millennium neared, a deal with Priority was finally locked down and a release date set. Except late ’99 was a fitting release date for the man whom RZA described as: “the person you see that’s never there, that guy that lurks in the shadows.”
“Never there” being the operative phrase, as Uncontrolled Substances emerged following a wave of mediocre Wu-affiliate albums (Sunz of Man, Killah Priest, Cappadonna), and in the midst of a seven-month period that saw seven Wu solo albums released between June 1999 and January 2000. With Raekwon’s insanely anticipated, insanely disappointing Immobilarity dropping a mere two weeks after it, Uncontrolled Substances registered little critical or commercial reaction and was quickly overshadowed in Wu circles when Ghost dropped Supreme Clientele a mere two months later.
Looking back at Deck’s much-delayed debut, eight years after the fact, illustrates most of all, the RZA’s impact in shepherding the Wu’s projects. Unlike the first round of classic solo albums, Deck’s record dropped after the RZA had ended his five-year plan of master-minding all Wu-Tang projects. Letting Deck run things meant less guest verses from the other Clan-members, less RZA beats, and the absence of the cinematic narratives that made Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords, Tical, and Ironman indelible.
In that vein, Uncontrolled Substance is a second-tier album, hampered by the absence of any and all memorable guest appearances. No vivid “drinking rum out of Stanley Cups” imagery from Ghostface, no “Ice Cream” hook from Meth, no Scarface references from Rae. Just a few Masta Killa and U-God bars and Wu weed carrier appearances, including one from La the Darkman more boring than the Liam Neeson movie, Darkman. Despite Deck’s well-constructed verses and supreme technical mastery, the album possesses little balance and little flow, filled with lyrically empty gun talk and boasts, albeit brilliantly constructed, slang-heavy, well-rapped empty boasts.
When removed from its album context and placed in shuffle, though, each song off Uncontrolled Substances is fairly solid, with a half-dozen great ones thrown into the mix. In three to four minute doses, Deck more than succeeds, penning hard-charging throwback joints like “R.E.C. Room,” the sex romp “Forget Me Not,” which oddly and wonderfully samples Half Baked’s Samson Simpson, the twinkling keys of “Elevation,” and the brassy swagger of the title track.
But stretched out over 17 tracks and an hour and six-minute run, Deck doesn’t have the steam to carry an album on his own, better off in the bullpen, throwing fewer pitches and cutting loose in the ninth. In spite of his solo shortcomings, Deck remains one of the finest rappers of the ‘90s. So what if his best work came in the context of the team game? After all, closers are only important on winning teams. Go ask Rollie Fingers.