the first time I heard the breakbeat from “Bring the Ruckus” kick in, it took my breath away. The song encapsulates everything about what makes Enter the Wu-Tang the definitive Wu-Tang album, as well as one of the most important records of the ‘90s: the surreal kung-fu samples, the throbbing sub-bass roll, the caustic percussion, the detuned horn samples, and the visceral lyrics. To this day, I insist that newcomers to Wu listen to “Bring the Ruckus” as their first introduction to the group. Beneath its sparse layers, the beat reveals itself as incredibly complex, making nuanced shifts for each MC’s verse. And the lyrics (courtesy of Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspecta Deck, and the GZA), while not profound in their subject matter, set the tone for a violent journey through the gutters of urban hell by sheer intensity of the delivery. RZA’s shouts of “Bring the motherfucking ruckus” simultaneously evoke the heights of rage and the depths of desperation.

And thus begins the 12-track revolution that is Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.

Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)

Wu-Tang broke all the rules. Nine MCs shared the mic, all with equal aplomb. The RZA helmed the production, and through a pastiche of breaks, Stax samples, and kung-fu dialogue, created an indelible ghetto-noir soundscape as alien as it was alienating. In fact, it’s quite easy to focus on RZA’s production as the main reason Enter is such a watershed (and many critics have). The rollicking funk of “Shame on a Nigga” (powered by staccato horn flourishes and the garbled insanity of Ol’ Dirty Bastard) gives way to the dark, primal “Clan in Da Front” and the minor-key-piano hop of “7th Chamber.” “Can It Be All So Simple,” with its disembodied soul diva and hiccupping bass is a moment of poignant reflection that closes the first half of the album. “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” features more of RZA’s ability for turning breaks and bass into an infectious tribal throb that never gets in the way of his MCs. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing to Fuck With” resurrects the visceral antagonism of “Bring Da Ruckus,” while “C.R.E.A.M.” served as the group’s mission statement (and breakout single). “Method Man” gave the group’s clear star the proper platform for creating a dark, dirty, and ultimately danceable banger, a theme further explored on Meth’s solo album. “Protect Ya Neck” is easily the album’s nearest step to perfection, featuring every MC (save Masta Killa, who was not a member at the time of recording) at his peak. RZA’s production is a flawless maelstrom: a clunky, infectious throb, coupled with subtle piano noodling and buzzing sirens that hearken back to the Bomb Squad. “Tearz” belies RZA’s debt to Stax like nothing else on the album, and its vintage groove (yet with an undeniable air of menace) would be further explored on Ghostface Killah’s solo albums. The album closes with a remix of “7th Chamber,” which transforms the beat into a more intimidating groove. The production values are low: the beats ring with a metallic, canned sound that only adds to the album’s aesthetic (think garage rock). The raps lack polish, instead favoring the immediacy and urgency of one-take delivery—what better way to capture the impermanence of ghetto life?

However, Enter is so much more than a platform to display some innovative production. It changed the way people thought of hip hop. Wu-Tang clearly meets anyone’s definition of gangsta rap, but that designation is really more of a convenient labeling. NWA had mastered the gangsta rap genre, and brought inner-city violence to mainstream listeners. However, the group’s tone was more punk rock than anything: a defiant sneer to white America, while celebrating what it meant to be young, black, and living in the ghettos of Los Angeles. Enter does not immediately identify itself as gangsta rap: it lacks the explicitness of Straight Outta Compton. Instead, the lyrics reach back to New York’s own Rakim: dense battle rhymes portent with metaphors. Each Wu MC links his rhymes to crime and violence, allowing his preoccupations to surface subtly and indirectly, rather than spouting off overt gangsta-isms designed to shock. Raekwon “murders phat tracks,” Deck “leave[s] the mic in body bags.” As Ghostface says in “Protect Ya Neck,” “If rap was a gun, you wouldn't bust back.” The listener is drawn into a vortex that is unmistakably ghetto, but one that is shrouded in uncertainty. Enter is not a portrait of ghetto life a la Straight Outta Compton; rather, it’s an engrossing, almost cinematic environment, one with few points of reference outside the streets. The hood imagery of the lyrics is utterly pervasive and uncompromising, immersing the listener in a foreign land smack in the middle of New York. There is no celebration here, and little hope. As Ghostface explains, “I wanna have me a phat yacht / And enough land to go and plant my own cess crops / But for now, it just a big dream / Cause I find myself in the place where I'm last seen.” The world of the Wu is not a snapshot of life in the ghetto, but an introspective confessional of the devastating effects the depressing atmosphere has on its inhabitants. The ghetto doesn’t just affect their bodies and their daily routines: it infects their minds and spirits.

If Enter has one flaw, it’s an unavoidable one. Few of the MCs get a chance to expound on their unique personas (the most electric ones, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man are the only ones who distinguish themselves), so many of their verses lack a unique personality. However, this serves a purpose of its own: it creates a faceless horde of a posse cut, with each rapper spitting a verse quickly, ducking out and letting someone new take his place. It’s the auditory equivalent of getting jacked by a group of thugs in a dark alley, and makes the album’s tone that much more foreboding.

With all the copy that’s been devoted to Enter over the years, calling this album essential is an understatement, calling it classic is redundant.

Method Man - Tical (1994)

The lack of personality development (an essential quality in rappers) on Enter the Wu-Tang is par for the course when your crew runs nine rappers strong. Here’s where the solo albums come in: they serve to flesh out the persona of each Wu Tang member. Method Man benefited from a strong, distinct presence on Enter, emerging as the group’s first star. This is due to many reasons: his laid back flows, adept verbal play, and, not the least, an entire track dedicated to him. Meth still holds the title for Wu-Tang member with the most popular appeal, and Tical solidified his status as the premier member of the group.

RZA again shows his versatility as a producer on the solo albums, crafting distinct niches for each rapper while maintaining a high level of consistency and quality. The production of Tical is all about the basslines, keeping things energized for Meth’s bounding charisma, but retaining a sense of foreboding. The only problem is that things sound a bit flat this time around: some of the beats simply lack the depth and complexity of the production on the first album. I attribute this to a flood that wiped out RZA’s studio during the recording of the album, requiring him to redo most of the beats from scratch. However, Tical still shines, the result of remarkable synergy between rapper and producer that marks all first-generation Wu-Tang material.

The opening track, “Tical,” brings the dark undercurrent in spades through a clanking breakbeat, a trunk-rattling bass, and haunting strings. The heads continue to nod through the hallucinogenic churn of “Biscuits” and the swirling psychedelia of the first single, “Bring the Pain.” The single features some of Meth’s most adept wordplay: “In your Cross Color, clothes you've crossed over / Then got Totally Krossed Out and Kris Kross / Who da boss? Niggas get tossed to the side / And I'm the dark side of the Force.”

While Tical contains elements of the paranoia and danger of Enter, the album’s clear thrust is the party scene. It’s an overwhelmingly danceable album: almost every track is a potential club banger. In this way, Tical serves as a release of the tension of Enter the 36 Chambers. “Release Yo Delf” is the most overt call to hedonistic painkilling, although its triumphant horns never quite mesh with the hook lifted from “I Will Survive.” “All I Need” is perhaps the definitive hip hop love song, and although the remix on Tical does not quite match the intensity of the original cut, it fits the album’s bass-heavy groove far better. “Meth vs. Chef” features a rhyme battle between Method Man and Raekwon: both wanted the beat for their respective solo albums, so RZA had them lyrically compete for it.

The thick haze of weed covers the entire album—in fact, “tical” is Method Man’s chosen slang term for marijuana. Thus, although Meth occasionally indulges in the violent imagery of his peers, he never sounds serious about it. It is perfectly clear that Meth would rather relax than fight. He casually dismisses lyrical challengers over the sinister sub-bass and tablas of “I Get My Thang in Action” with “You don’t know me, and you don’t know my style.” Wu-Tang members RZA and Inspecta Deck show up in “Mr. Sandman” to drop some violent metaphors, but then it’s back to the party with “Stimulation” as Blue Raspberry (one of many near-anonymous Wu-divas) extorts listeners to “come together for the stimulation.” The album closes with a remix of “Method Man,” the star-making track from Enter. Meth once again does not fail to please with his gravelly voice and percolating flows, and he solidifies his role as the most charismatic Wu-Tang member.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard - Return to the 36 Chambers (1995)

The other major personality to emerge on 36 Chambers was the id of the group, founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The aptly named rapper captivated with his whirling dervish approach to the mic, spitting battle rhymes with a unique garbled charisma. Return is not so much a return to the overall feel of the first album, but it does emphasize the lo-fi, spontaneous quality that gave it such raw energy. RZA once again switches his production style to his MC’s need, this time using clanking low-end loops and fractured piano samples to give the beats a lumbering dementia that fits ODB’s sputtering freestyles perfectly.

After a lengthy spoken introduction, things start with the two-note piano melody and vinyl hiss of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” revealing Return as another party album, but one far more cracked than anything Method Man delivered on Tical. Instead of another verse, half of the first is reversed, and then the entire verse is delivered again. And it works somehow, mostly due to ODB’s maniacal energy. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” segues straight into the scuzzy bass groove of “Baby C’mon.” ODB has a knack for simple, catchy hooks (a similar trait in Method Man). As Dirty shouts, “Wu! Tang! Wu! Tang! It’s on your brain!” I have no choice but to agree. Once again, the album flows into another brain-damaged banger, “Brooklyn Zoo.” He delivers one long, unstoppable verse: one of the most entrancing parts of listening to Ol’ Dirty is that his rhymes verge on falling apart throughout the entire song, but he keeps everything under control. His studio technique relied on freestyles, which he delivered, and then perfected in the next few takes. Any other process would be a misrepresentation of such an explosive and impulsive character.

“Raw Hide” disrupts the tempo a bit, as Dirty loses steam (and lucidity) over an incredibly sinister grind. However, although Dirty sounds like he’s coming down, he doesn’t stop being entertaining, and Method Man and Raekwon provide some stability to the track. “Damage” is more of an old-school homage, with ODB and GZA trading rhymes over another bass-heavy churn.

Dirty focuses his sexual energy (heretofore an ever-present, but unarticulated force) on the next streak of tracks, starting off with the high school fantasy “Don’t U Know.” The explicit “The Stomp” features Dirty showing off a proclivity for Biz-Markie-esque off-key crooning, as does “Goin’ Down,” where he practically murders “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The album continues to lose coherence through “Drunk Game,” RZA and ODB’s hilarious deconstruction of smooth R&B;, but ODB’s personality never fails to entertain and intrigue. “Brooklyn Zoo II” has Dirty at his most explosive, with RZA overdubbing his studio outtakes with his garbled rapping to create even more ODB mayhem before inexplicably running through snippets of the album’s previous tracks. “Protect Ya Neck II” attempts to recreate the lyrical tour-de-force of the original, but falls short due to the underwhelming (although occasionally promising) appearances by members of Wu-affiliates Sunz of Man and Brooklyn Zu (the latter group’s unfortunately named Shorty Shitstain still stands as one of the most undesirable of rapper pseudonyms). Even at Return’s most bizarre and irreverent, ODB’s high-strung presence keeps things together, even as he himself falls apart.

Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)

The earlier Wu-Tang solo albums proved themselves worthy additions to the Wu-oeuvre, but never threatened to eclipse Enter the Wu-Tang’s genius. That changed with Raekwon’s solo debut. Although an undoubtedly skilled MC, Raekwon never managed to establish himself through his collaborations. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx allowed Raekwon’s unique vision to become fully realized. It’s a concept album of sorts, recasting the Clan as the Wu-Gambino crime syndicate (complete with new call signs). Raekwon adopts the moniker “Lex Diamonds,” with Ghostface Killah (AKA Tony Starks) as his right hand man. The story of Cuban Linx borrows from the real-life exploits of Raekwon and Ghostface: both were veterans of the crack game on the tumultuous streets of Staten Island (Raekwon’s “chef” designation stems from his duty of cooking up rocks of crack to sell; the album’s liner notes include a picture of him doing just that). Combining gritty, ultra-detailed narratives of the crack war with Raekwon’s own Mafioso fantasies turn street-level drug dealing into an existential parable that would make Hermann Hesse proud. This is an album rife with conflict, internal and external. Battles rage between rival drug gangs, while Lex and Tony struggle to make sense of their situation and remain on top. Raekwon’s lyrics are tinged with regret and uncertainty, as if he still isn’t sure where he stands: Is the drug game a means to an end, or an end in and of itself?

The album starts off with Rae and Ghost discussing their plans to get out of the drug game and the ghetto. Cuban Linx is their vehicle—trading street infamy for hip hop stardom by setting their exploits to music. “Knuckleheadz” serves as an introduction to the Wu-Gambino world, as Raekwon, Ghostface, and U-God describe the formative years of the syndicate, full of pasta, glocks, and drugs. Set to minor key piano riffs and blunted bass, the song exudes urgency and unpredictability, persistent themes throughout the album. The crew faces endless danger from the cops and rival gangs during its early phases, but contrary to the protagonists’ beliefs, these dangers never cease even when they have achieved success. “Knowledge God” kicks off with the sounds of snorting coke, washed-out strings, and deep bass. Rae is on top now, in the club consorting with “World of Sport niggas.” He’s on the inside of ultra-rich decadence. Raekwon treats this world with disdain, however: it is too full of complacency and laziness. He admonishes an unseen protégé in the song’s hook: “Let’s get money son; now you want to smoke shit?” Lex Diamonds is always on the clock, plotting moves and orchestrating hits. The second verse veers sharply from the first, recounting the assassination of a rival dealer. Raekwon describes his rival in detail, and there is an unmistakable air of identification with the dead mobster. But before things get too sentimental, Raekwon concludes, “I can't front though, truck loads of indo / Soon to blow slow, his ass is out now, tally-ho.”

“Criminology” features samples from the film analog to Cuban Linx, Scarface, specifically from scenes where Tony Montana starts losing control. The beat is spare, with only some blaxploitation grooves separating Ghostfaces’s verse from Raekwon’s. The track is a meant as a break from the world of organized crime—just Ghost and Rae spitting battle raps. But Raekwon’s preoccupations get the best of him as his rhymes skitter through a wide cross-section of criminal imagery before he finally attempts to get back to battling: “Yo fuck that, criminology rap / Speakers stay jet black floating in the fliest Ac'.”

The album’s centerpiece is rather early in the album. “Incarcerated Scarfaces” is an impressionistic journey through Raekwon’s schizophrenic world. RZA shows off some of his best production to date, creating an infectious loop that carries the song. Chiming keys make up a two-note melody while the breakbeat snaps and crackles with unmatched intensity. The intro samples kung-fu dialogue that perfectly illustrates the Lex Diamonds persona: “He looks determined without being ruthless... Something heroic in this man, there's a courage about him... Doesn't look like a killer... Comes across so calm, acts like he has a dream... Full of passion.” The song is a mission statement: boasts of successes, shout-outs, and alternately nostalgic and harrowing memories of the ghetto. First, an exaltation of the Wu-Gambino family’s successes, and also a warning to other crews: “Ya got guns, we got guns too, what up son, do / you wanna battle for cash and see who’s Sun Tzu?” Then, the hook, giving props to friends and allies in jail. The line “We could trade places, get lifted in the staircases” serves as a reminder of Raekwon’s vulnerability as well as a nonchalant nod to grimy project drug use. Raekwon almost seems to simultaneously address the listener, as if he yearns to trade places with someone and get out of Staten Island. Then, some of the most heartbreaking descriptions of project life put to tape: “Broke elevators, turn the lights out, stick one / upstairs, switch like a chameleon / Hip Brazilians, pass the cash or leave your children / Leave the building.” The song concludes with Rae acknowledging the unbelievability of his dire situation by insisting that the listener heed him: “Like a 27-inch Zenith—believe it.”

“Rainy Dayz” foregoes the triumphs of “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” focusing on the hardship. Adversity piles up: “Filthiest fiends scream for more,” “Niggas want work,” “Projects infested with rats cats and crack homes.” All this on top of one of RZA’s most intense and cinematic beats, layering strings on top of strings until they positively scream. Wu-diva Blue Raspberry provides some R&B; histrionics, emotionally shading Raekwon’s cold-stare flows. Raekwon sums it up in one stark line: “Half of us'll try to make it, the other half'll try to take it.” The song seems to end for a moment, with the sound of children playing, but then kicks back into full squall, complete with thunderclaps. “Guillotine” is another respite from the streets, with Ghostface, Inspecta Deck, and the GZA assisting Raekwon in another battle rap over a spare beat. The cocaine and crime imagery still persists, especially in Rae’s verse: “My Clan done ran from Japan to Atlanta, with stamina / Clingers and gamblers, and gram handlers.”

The next track is a reprise of “Can It Be All So Simple,” which first showcased the synergy between Ghostface and Raekwon. This time, Ghost and Rae each recount being shot, complete with all the thoughts that went through their head. Ghostface says in disbelief, “Can it be an out-of-state nigga tried to murder me?” as he comes to realize how seriously involved he is in the drug game. Raekwon’s brush with death makes him pour himself into his work: “But now I'm all about G-notes, no time for weed mixed with coke.” The next track, “Shark Niggas,” is a brief pause, a verbal track with Raekwon admonishing MCs for copping his style.

“Ice Water” breaks little new ground on an album already incredibly groundbreaking, but it does do a few things. First, Ghostface shows himself increasingly infatuated with the wealth that surrounds him, which will become an important theme on his trilogy of solo albums. Secondly, it introduces Cappadonna, the on-again off-again Wu-Tang member, who would make a name for himself with his gruff voice, uber-impressionistic rhymes, and startling inconsistency. “Glaciers of Ice” starts with a skit featuring Joe, a crackhead who serves as an emblem of the destructive power of the drug. RZA again comes correct with the beat, somehow finding common ground between East Asia and Italy with violin and strummed guitar. Raekwon spits his verses with the precision of an automatic weapon, and the subject matter takes a more abstract turn, probably due to the appearance of Masta Killa, the group’s most philosophical member. The up-tempo track is incredibly intense, and samples of gunfire add to the maelstrom: “Hits from every angle,” as Masta Killa says. “Verbal Intercourse” features the only Wu-Gambino not in the Clan: Naps Escobar. Nas, Rae, and Ghost take turns spitting more depressing nuggets of ghetto life. Nas describes the inescapable cycle of crime: “Niggas come home, some'll go in / Do a bullet, come back, do the same shit again.” Raekwon provides some more hood imagery— “Pyrex pots we break, fiends lickin' plates”—and Ghostface ends the song with a double-entendre: “Me, Nas and Rae got the best product on the block.” The best rhymes or the best coke? Maybe both.

Ghostface tackles another favorite topic in “Wisdom Body,” enacting a scene where he attempts to seduce a woman. Raekwon spins another detailed crime story in “Spot Rusherz,” starting with Lex Diamonds wining and dining another dealer, Kion, then breaking into his home and holding him up for his money and drugs. The story concludes with Kion refusing to reveal the location of his stash, so Lex goes into action: “Shot his hand, he started screamin' like a bitch!” “Ice Cream” is another respite from the action, with Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon, and Cappadonna all weaving lyrical tapestries about beautiful women. The real star of the song is RZA’s beat, with an unstoppable piano loop, wordless soulful crooning, and vinyl crackle. “Heaven & Hell” is the official end of the album, with a melancholy soul ballad for a beat. Ghost and Rae trade lines, concluding with “We don't believe in heaven, ‘cause we're living in hell.” “North Star” is mostly a dialogue between Raekwon and Poppa Wu, the group’s mentor. The album ends with finality, but with a note of ambiguity. “For no man is good and bad at the same time. Either you good, or you bad.” Where Raekwon finally stands isn’t clear.

GZA - Liquid Swords (1993)

The GZA is the senior member of Wu-Tang: the oldest member, and the first to enter the rap game. It comes as no surprise that his solo debut places a strict focus on precise rhymes and pinpoint metaphors. Liquid Swords affirms the GZA as the Wu MC most dedicated to the art of rapping. Instead of flaunting a charismatic persona or distinctive flow, the GZA launches one finely honed bar after another, attacking everyone from sucka MCs to the record industry. Snippets of dialogue from kung-fu movies tie the album together: GZA approaches rapping with the dedication and seriousness of a martial arts master. The RZA is once again an essential presence, crafting a hazy, hallucinogenic soundscape of beats, bass, and incorporating a new infatuation with cheap synths.

All of these elements come together for the unstoppable juggernaut of the album’s title track. “Liquid Swords” is an homage to the influences of the Wu. RZA explains as the track warms up, “See, sometimes... You gotta flash ‘em back. See, niggas don't know where this shit started. Y'all know where it came from. I'm sayin' we gonna take y'all back to the source.” Then the hook kicks in, with a blunted beat and wonderful clipped synths: “When the MCs caaaaame, to live out the naaaaame...” It’s old school, filtered through the macabre Wu Tang world, and it works beautifully. GZA’s best metaphors come one after another: “I flow like the blood on a murder scene,” “Shit's played, like zodiac signs on sweatshirts,” and perhaps GZA’s most brilliant slam, “Lyrics are weak, like clock radio speakers.” A good metaphor is one that is original, yet easily relatable. Everyone has a clock radio, and everyone’s clock radio has shitty speakers. But this fact is not something that people think about and discuss, despite its universality. GZA taps into this universal nature, and comes out with one of the most memorable lines in the Wu oeuvre. The song is about as close to perfect as Wu Tang comes: GZA’s flows are polished and exact, and the beat dares you to resist nodding your head.

“The Duel of the Iron Mic” once again makes a connection between martial arts combat and battle rhymes. This fight is serious: no friendly sparring here. GZA’s packs every line to the brim with meaning, making his raps incredibly dense: “Fuck the screw-faced photo sessions facial expression / Leaves impressions, try to keep a shark nigga guessin’.” GZA’s exact references aren’t always clear, but his stoic delivery gives off an air of extreme importance and seriousness. The production is more somber, with a melancholy piano riff as the only accoutrement besides beats and bass. “Living in the World Today” recaptures some of the old-school bombast of the opening track, with a catchy bass line and well-placed horn flares. GZA’s rhymes are his most concentrated yet: “My rhyme gross weight vehicle combination / Was too heavy for the Chevy's is chased out the station / Double-edged was the guillotine that beheaded it / Gassed up, fuckin' with some regular unleaded shit.” GZA slings obscure references with reckless abandon while still connecting each line together with concurrent imagery or extended metaphors.

“Gold” is a change in focus to the gritty crime drama of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. GZA never takes his stories to the cinematic levels that Raekwon does, instead putting his own spin on things with metaphors and punchlines. Where a stark desperation ruled over the streets of Cuban Linx, paranoia prevails in the drug world of Liquid Swords. “Bum niggas sleepin' on the bench, they had ‘em wired,” GZA describes, as he outlines setting up a hit on a rival dealer. “Gold” is a rush of urgency, of a need for money as potent as the addiction pangs of crack addicts. The beat drives the song’s complex layers of shrill synths and disembodied symphonic samples through the breathless blast of the hook: “Fiends ain't comin' fast enough / There is no cut that's pure enough / I can't fold, I need gold, I re-up and reload / Product must be sold to you.” “Gold” flows into another somber reflection, “Cold World.” An incessant gust of wind chills the track to the bone, and GZA delivers more dense hood imagery. There’s a slight reverb in GZA’s vocals (an effect found throughout the album), adding to the muffled haze of the track.

“Labels” shows GZA willing and able to take on a theme throughout a song. A vicious diss to the record industry, the track sees GZA incorporating the names of record labels throughout his rhymes. The animosity toward the record industry is a hallmark of the GZA; his pre-Wu-Tang album, Words from the Genius, was poorly handled by Tommy Boy, leaving the rapper disenchanted with the industry. The first line, “Tommy ain’t my motherfuckin’ boy,” is dedicated to GZA’s former affiliation. RZA’s production is once again unsettling, with another complex beat centered around what might be otherworldly organ chords, played in disorienting chunks. “4th Chamber” shows RZA experimenting successfully again, building squelchy synths and other electronic ephemera on top of a solid Stax foundation. The track is group effort, a familiar outing for Wu solo projects. Ghostface, Killah Priest (a Wu associate), RZA, and the Genius all lay solid raps, with RZA’s distinct verse and voice leaving the greatest impression. Heads can prepare to nod once more with “Shadowboxing.” RZA’s got it down again, with a great bassline providing a base for some subtle sampled strings and a sped-up vocal sample (something that has become de rigueur in modern hip hop). The intro comes most correct, with Method Man scatting and RZA laying down some frenetic turntable scratching.

The last third of the album devolves into an even murkier and opaque soundscape. The cheap synths come back for their most squelchy and dissonant appearance in “Killah Hills 10304.” GZA lays down a Wu-Gambino tale in one verse, without hook or interruption. “Investigative Reports” throws veteran Wu-Gambinos Raekwon, Ghostface, and U-God into the mix with GZA; the result is an unsettling track that trades lucidity for paranoid atmosphere. The imagery runs thick, detailing many of the degradations of the hood:

Rugged rhymesters, crooked crimesters
Dime droppers, Twenty-five-to-lifers
Backstabbers, low blowers
Illegal cocaine growers
Starvation, profanity
Anxiety, brothers tryin' me
Gun slingers, dead ringers
Investigative reports!

“Swordsman” is self-analysis tinged with religious reflection, then dragged through the most frightening and disconcerting beats RZA has ever made: clunky drums, meandering bass, and eerie keys, with some harsh, grimy horn riffs adding to the confusion. The reverb on GZA’s voice is more pronounced than ever, reflecting the largest departure from concrete imagery on the album: “We were on the same ship when the slaves were checked / I had to pull your card, you was on the top deck / So I plotted my escape, I saw the thin line between love and hate / And fast from the hog on the plate.” Things get grounded once again with “I Gotcha Back,” which recalls the pressing horns of “Gold,” but tempered with more paranoia. RZA takes the vocal duties on the hook: “I gotcha back, so you best to watch your front / ‘Cause it's the niggas in front that be pullin’ stunts.”

The final track, “B.I.B.L.E.,” doesn’t really belong on Liquid Swords: neither the GZA nor RZA contribute to the song. Instead, Wu-family member Killah Priest spits a narrative describing his religious life over a RZA-lite beat produced by Clan in-house producer 4th Disciple. The song isn’t bad, but it doesn’t belong on the album, and it’s placement at the end leaves the listener unsatisfied after plunging the shadowy depths of the GZA’s psyche. And perhaps the unsettling way Liquid Swords closes perfectly emblemizes the anxiety felt throughout the album. The GZA is no longer here, but we didn’t see him leave; he could be around any corner, ready to drop megaton bombs more faster than you blink.

Ghostface Killah—Ironman (1996)

After the watershed Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, the world was ready for Raekwon’s indomitable associate to come out with his own solo project. Ironman dropped in 1996, with Ghostface Killah renaming himself to reflect his new invulnerability. Ironman is very similar in theme to Cuban Linx, so much so that it often has trouble emerging from its predecessor’s shadow. The crime tales are here, but gone is the desperation and paranoia that made Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords relevant. Instead, an overwhelming feeling of complacency and egotism pervades. Ghost and Rae have made it out of the streets and attained success; they are now content to rest on their laurels. Who can blame them? They survived the merciless crack wars of the New York ghettos and emerged as wealthy businessmen and critically-acclaimed artists. And although Ironman fails to make a distinct presence, the Wu-Tang talent still flows strongly through the album. RZA’s sure hand again guides the record along its content journey, upping the production values to create silky smooth grooves out of his trademark R&B; samples, but retaining the aggressive air of a gangsta: a perfect fit to Ghostface’s hood-to-riches persona.

The main problem is that Ironman never develops a personality of its own. It has a (somewhat) unique variation on the Wu Tang theme, it has explosive MCs, and it has great songs. Unfortunately, the lack of any overarching concept makes the album’s weak moments stand out, where on previous solo outings a compelling premise could elevate mediocre tracks. Luckily, Ironman has its share of strong songs, making it solid, if not exceptional.

Things start off right with “Iron Maiden,” featuring core Wu-Gambinos Raekwon, Ghostface, and Cappadonna. RZA nails the beat, riding a stable groove while providing plenty of cinematic variations on the theme. Raekwon comes with some patented battle-rap-by-way-of-gang-war lines, while Ghost starts to hone his own persona, describing his wealth through schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness imagery. Cappadonna also provides a solid verse; although notoriously inconsistent, Cappa’s best work is found on this record. “Wildflower” tackles a subject close to Ghost’s heart: women. Ghostface’s relationship with women is a tumultuous one: he comes from a background steeped in misogyny, but nevertheless idealizes the smooth romantics of ‘70s soul. “Wildflower” is all misogyny though, perhaps one of the most virulent slams against an unfaithful woman in hip hop (which is saying something). After cutting off Wu-associate Jamie Summers in mid-rap, Ghost proceeds to spit over 40 lines of extreme woman-hating. Starting with “Yo bitch, I fucked your friend, yeah, you stank ho,” “Wildflower” is three-and-a-half minutes of jaw-dropping lyrical evisceration. Best line of the bunch: “My dick's the boooomb baby, marvelous hot steak.” The track also showcases Ghostface’s heavier emphasis on narrative than Raekwon. Ghost often sounds like he’s reliving events, playing characters and spouting lines of dialogue in his rap dramas.

“The Faster Blade” and “260” float by, with depictions of Ghost reveling in wealth that are less than gripping. “Assassination Day” is the next standout. Curiously, Ghostface doesn’t appear on the track, but Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, the RZA, and the elusive Masta Killa make strong showings. The latter’s verse is a definite standout, as Masta Killa waxes regretful about a necessary murder. “Temptation tempts my victim to proceed / Forward, ignorance wouldn't allow retreat / You'd rather pursue death than admit defeat.” Whether he’s making a metaphor between assassination and battle rhyming, or if he is recalling an actual killing is left unclear: in the world of the Wu, metaphor and reality are closely intertwined.

“Winter Warz” is a return to the hard battle raps of Enter the Wu-Tang, over a chiming beat and squelchy, shrill synth. Cappadonna drops an incredible verse, fully utilizing his proclivities toward inside rhyming. “Divine can't define my style is so deep / Like pussy, my low cut fade stay bushy / Like a porcupine, I part backs like a spine / Cut you like a blunt and reconstruct your design.” “Box in Hand” foreshadows RZA’s foray into making his own melodies and drum beats, but he cushions the beat with piano samples. The beat is still undeniably weak, and, unfortunately, RZA would indulge his cheap keyboard muse further instead of squashing it here. “Camay” rides a disembodied Teddy Perdergrass sample into a haunting soundscape that runs opposed to the verbal pickup lines thrown by Raekwon, Cappadonna, and Ghostface. Ghost’s verse is particularly entertaining: nothing gets him worked up like the fairer sex, and his lines shine with energy.

“Daytona 500” is easily the album’s standout, with an explosive beat powered by a rocking loop lifted from Bob James’ “Nautilus.” Ghost could spit anything over those snare rolls and it would sound good. “Motherless Child” hearkens back to the streets of Cuban Linx. Rae and Ghost take a moment out of their nouveau-riche lifestyle to paint another haunting street saga, with Ghost concluding, “Oh shit, what the fuck? / This shit is horrible.” It’s a clear departure from the matter-of-fact violence of Cuban Linx: Ghostface’s celebration of his wealth becomes a way to distance himself from his brutal past. “Black Jesus” comes with suitable bombast, with triumphant opera samples and horns creating a Wagnerian atmosphere for Ghostface’s just-this-side-of-nonsense rhymes: “I played the building, burn a branch and get filled in / Like Pilgrims G-in' Pepperidge farms from out a million.”

The next (and last) track worthy of mention is “All That I Got is You,” showing Ghostface adopting his soul man persona to the fullest for a maudlin ballad with Mary J. Blige on the hook. It’s the kind of less-than-revelatory song that attempts to give a one-dimensional gangsta rapper extra shades of personality. Here, it’s just plain unnecessary: Ghost has already established that he’s more than just a thug.

Ironman is not a mess, but it’s definitely the first Wu Tang release that feels like something of a failure. The beats and rhymes are there, but things rarely add up to more than the sum of their parts. The album is also marred by inconsistency of theme: Ghostface goes from successful former criminal to street-level thug to mawkish tearjerker without explanation or progression. These failings boil down to an uncertainty on the part of Ghostface: he doesn’t know where he stands. He’s out of the ghetto, but the ghetto is all he knows. This uncertainty is where he should have focused his attention (and where he did focus it on the stellar Supreme Clientele). Instead, we’re left with bits and pieces of a fragmented persona: as a sample from Carlito’s Way at the end of “The Soul Controller” articulates: “Sorry, boys. All the bits and pieces of the world can’t sew me back together again.”

The Sophomore Slump (1997-1999)

So how long could Wu-Tang drop consistently excellent albums without end in sight? It turns out that it only took until the second proper Wu-Tang Clan album for cracks to form and multiply. Although blame for the sharp decline in quality falls upon the group as a whole, a large part of the responsibility falls upon the conductor: RZA. He’s either absent or in poor form for the group’s plethora of albums released during the 1997-1999 period. The RZA undertook an ill-advised endeavor of musical education prior to Forever, attempting to program his own drums and compose his own melodies instead of relying on samples and loops. The results of this producer’s Dark Age are flat, weak beats that lack the gritty menace or the cinematic flair of RZA’s best work. RZA’s previous flirtations with cheap keyboards transform into a full-blown obsession on Forever and his solo album, Bobby Digital in Stereo. RZA acolytes Tru Master, Arabian Nights, and 4th Disciple relentlessly apply the RZA equation of strings + minor key piano + beats on the follow-ups for Method Man, GZA, and Raekwon, as well as the solo ventures from Inspectah Deck and U-God, failing to expand on the formula whatsoever.

Forever (1997) is the first notable offender. While not a failure, the album suffers from a double-album tracklisting with only a few standout tracks. “Reunited” features the Clan’s remarkable lyrical synergy over some particularly inspired fiddle work, while “Triumph” again brings out all the MCs (plus Cappadonna) to spit over a bass-heavy symphonic assault of a beat. Ol’ Dirty Bastard brings some of his manic aplomb to “Dog Shit,” but the album’s notable tracks ends there. What are left are lackluster beats that seem to sap the energy from the MCs. Flat drum machines and MIDI strings and horns showcase RZA’s aspirations as a composer, but to the detriment to his considerable skill as an arranger. The beats are rarely inventive (aside from the aforementioned tracks), instead coasting on shallow grooves.

A new sense of import struck the group since their breakthrough—they went from deep underground to banner-wavers of hip-hop between their first two group albums, and clearly some sort of aesthetic change was necessary. The Clan interpreted this transition to mean plenty of heavy-handed pleas to rescue children from the ghetto - not a poor sentiment, but one lacking in originality or effectiveness. This sense of omen stretches across the entire album. The epic flair of “Impossible” and “Second Coming” highlight Wu-Tang’s new sense of self: as unconquerable mythic deities. Plenty of pick-a-mix religious imagery flows throughout Forever—nods to Allah and allusions to Christ’s resurrection amid references to Eastern philosophies—but lines like “Between the new world ages / We were blessed, and Wu-Tang fills the ear / With the melody of a train (Lord is suddenly here!)” are more inadvertently humorous than inspiring. More telling is the potent strain of apocalyptic doomsaying that runs ever-present throughout both discs. “Hellz Wind Staff” repaints the traditional Wu-Tang ghetto-life portraits into a larger growing chaos, while “Triumph” finds the Clan metaphorically tying their rhyming skills to the strength of Armageddon, rather than beatdowns and hold-ups. There is a definite apprehension about the future, a paranoia that seems molded equally from conspiracy theories, religion, and a drastic lifestyle change. With their fame and fortune, the Clan is eager to recontextualize their struggles into a larger battle. Unfortunately, this sense of importance is the only coherent theme to emerge from Forever, leaving many other intriguing ideas underdeveloped and watered down. Without an evocative soundscape from RZA, Forever stands as the Clan’s first disappointment—and it’s a major one.

RZA - Bobby Digital in Stereo (1998)

It won’t be the last disappointment, or even the biggest. RZA’s solo venture may take the latter’s title. After RZA’s underwhelming switch to keyboards and drum programming rather than sampling, one could only hope his solo album would be a glorious return to form. RZA had always been a powerful presence on the microphone as well as the boards, spitting abstract, reference-heavy verses that ached with portent. However, Bobby Digital in Stereo (1998) is not the vintage-Wu-styled tour-de-force expected from the producer. Instead, it’s a gratuitous concept album ostensibly authored by RZA’s alter ego, B-boy superhero Bobby Digital (a play off RZA’s birth name, Robert Diggs). The Bobby premise is a muddy one indeed; it is unclear if he’s from the past or the future, or what exactly his agenda is. Presumably he wants to clean up the rap game, coming complete with the warning “all you analog niggas prepare to be digitized,” but his methods remain ambiguous. If “digital” refers to the Casio synths and blasé drum machines, one hesitates to swear allegiance to Bobby’s crusade (although with the prevalence of keyboard beats in hip hop today, perhaps Bobby Digital should seem remarkably prescient). Perhaps the true meaning of the Bobby Digital saga was lost when plans for an accompanying film (!) and comic book series (!!) fell through. However, BDIS distinguishes itself from Forever by having more focus, even though this focus is probably an incidental occurrence stemming from the fact that this is a solo album. A prevailing sense of importance and destiny runs strongly through the album, as it did on Forever, but here we see RZA tackle this alone.

First of all, BDIS is far more musical than Forever. The production values are still distracting, but RZA is obviously reaching for something. He attempts to carve thematic melodies out of his synths, repeating musical themes throughout the album. The piano becomes a more notable component of the beats, although they usually are resigned to repeatedly tapped minor chords. Wanton experimentation reaches its apogee in three “Slow Grind” interludes, featuring women of different nationalities intoning homages to Bobby in their native tongues. But the beats still lack the visceral attitude and cinematic scope of RZA’s earlier work (exceptions: “Kiss of the Black Widow” creates a disconcerting atmosphere courtesy of a Portishead sample, and the sweeping kung-fu strings of “My Lovin’ is Digi” give it a bit of an epic flair).

Despite obscuring his persona with Bobby Digital and making attempts at narrative structure, RZA still manages to expose his tortured inner world to his fans. The tangled web of failed ideas reeks of long coked-out days in the studio, and if nothing else, BDIS does construct its own warped universe. RZA’s frustrations with women come to the forefront: he simultaneously idolizes and despises them. The sacred woman-as-fertile-queen motif manifests itself as “Love Jones” while the schism between RZA’s ideals and reality takes on the form of a spat in “Domestic Violence.” RZA’s tenuous connection with women is the only theme articulated to any extent, and once again RZA throws abstract lines like “Circuit breakers try to take / us on illusionary rides to the future” and “You fallin’ down a endless tunnel of doom reality / Graphically, my killer bee family stings the galaxy,” that simply don’t make sense.

My own take on the BDIS is that it is partially a response to the indie rap scene that sprung up during the Wu dormancy. No longer were the Clan members kings of the underground; instead Kool Keith and Company Flow had created a new kind of alienating subterranean hip hop, one with a distinct science fiction feel. Dr. Octagon’s tongue-twisting lyrics threatened to spin out of control at any moment, while Big Jus and El-Producto packed their lines with as many syllables as they could hold. RZA follows in suit, piling word after word, often with complex internal rhymes: “Cuz I'm filthy and guilty, dastardly, mastery / My felony melody has to be a bastards masterpiece” and “While, I'm sippin' herbal teas, verbal bees plant fertile seeds / Bitches leave with broke backs, swollen palms and purple knees” (from “Holocaust (Silkworm)”). This is an answer to the underground fans that said Wu-Tang fell off with Forever. And while Bobby Digital lacks the innovative musical accompaniment of his alternative brethren, his idiosyncratic charm turns BDIS into an interesting, and often fun, journey. The album fails in all of its goals: musical innovation, lyrical portent, thematic concept, and a defense of the Wu against independent detractors; however, it succeeds in portraying another entertaining facet of the Clan.

The same can’t be said of the host of other solo releases during this period. Method Man’s Tical 2000 (1998), Raekwon’s Immobilarity (1999), and GZA’s Beneath the Surface (1999) all suffer immensely with the RZA’s only occasional presence. Instead of cohesive songs, the group’s most explosive MCs rehash old themes over mediocre beats by RZA-lite Wu-producers Arabian Nights, Tru Master, and 4th Disciple. Inspectah Deck’s Uncontrolled Substance (1999) and U-God’s Golden Arms Redemption (1999) are similarly cursed, and also lack MCs with personalities strong enough to carry an album. Despite a decent song here and there (GZA’s album has a strong first half; Method Man manages to turn out a memorable track with RZA’s assistance on “Judgment Day”), the albums are almost entirely forgettable and unessential.

There is one shining light in the sea of disappointment from this era: Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s near-psychotic Nigga Please (1999). During his downtime, ODB had steadily (and most likely, inadvertently) cultivated his image as hip hop’s loosest cannon (and most indelible personalities). All this reaches a musical head on Nigga Please, an album that doesn’t sound like Wu-Tang as much as it sounds like ODB. RZA produces several tracks on the album, but the real standouts are the songs helmed by the Neptunes. The now-ubiquitous duo got their big break with the hit single “Got Your Money,” and produced the rest of the album’s catchiest numbers. “Recognize” sounds like a studio experiment that went horribly right, patching together verses from disparate fragments of ODB’s lyrics. Pharrell Williams’ hook is irresistible as usual, while the introductory cameo from Chris Rock is more puzzling than anything else. The Neptunes also inject some sneaky synth funk into Dirty’s fantastic cover of Rick James’ “Cold Blooded,” a song that could succeed on premise alone. Irv Gotti provides (rumors abound that he merely bought the beats and attached his name) some appropriately overwrought symphonic beats for the manic “I Can’t Wait” and the positively triumphant “You Don’t Want to Fuck With Me” while RZA’s adopts a more light-hearted, casual style than the grimy loops of Return to the 36 Chambers. But ODB is clearly the star, stepping to the mic for some of the least lucid and most entertaining moments in hip hop. His dope-addled rhymes (when he feels so inclined as to actually rhyme) sound like they were recorded on the first or second take, and the energetic spontaneity infects the entire disc, even (perhaps especially) when Dirty sounds on the verge of breakdown. What follows are a few choice lyrical moments:

“I want to give a shout out to the Eskimos. I want to give a shout out to the submarines. I want to give a shout out to the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines.” (from “I Can’t Wait”)

“I'm fucking my vest, drive an armored tank y'all / I dead niggas like a dog buries a bone.” (from “Nigga Please”)

“Bitches throw hands in the air like to be sodomized / That's what I'm here for! That's what I'm all about!” (from “Rollin’ Wit You”)

“I'm a Dalmatian, knowhatimsayin? Motherfucker, I'm white and I'm black, what? You can't understand it? Then fuck you! Knowhatimsayin?” (from “All in Together”)

“I g-g-g-g-got girls on the command / I got the government lost on Gilligan's Island.” (from “You Don't Want to Fuck With Me”).

The Renaissance (2000-present)

Despite Forever moving more units than any Wu-Tang album to date, by the end of the decade the luster on the Clan’s crown to the rap game was all but faded. RZA’s guidance had dissipated as he attempted to learn new production techniques, and the host of imitators left to maintain the fort during his absence was not up to the task. Fortunately, the Wu-mentor returned to his role late in 1999, once more steering the group once again into new territories of sonic magnificence. Not everything is up to par with vintage Clan material, but it’s a good deal stronger than anything created during the slump. And even when they fail to connect musically, Wu-Tang still manages to put forth interesting musical ideas.

Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele (2000)

Pure love. This album radiates it. Love for hip hop. Love for the streets. Love for New York. Love for the Wu. Most of all, self-love. Ghostface Killah’s opus, Supreme Clientele, is a stunning tribute to Tony Starks, the human side of his invincible Ironman. Full of gutter grandiosity and infectious enthusiasm, Supreme Clientele wiped away the tepid legacy of all the other Clan sophomore efforts and single-handedly reignited hopes that Wu-Tang could rise again.

Ghostface is the perfect herald for the Wu-Renaissance. His caffeinated pastiche homages to street life rank as one of the most original stylistic variations of rap to come out of the Clan, and Supreme Clientele takes this style to its full and logical (or is that illogical?) conclusion. From the opening lines of “Nutmeg” (“Scientific, my hand kissed it / Robotic, let's think optimistic / You probably missed it, watch me dolly dick it / Scotty watty cop it to me, big microphone hippie”), Ghostface emerges as the Wu Tang member that didn’t compromise his style after becoming successful; if anything, he retreated further into his own inner world of barely comprehensible slang and non sequiturs. This works to his advantage: Wu-Tang is always at its best at its most alien and uncompromising. Furthermore, Ghostface’s keyed-up delivery captures the spontaneous energy (another essential Wu-trait) of a freestyle battle. The sounds of words are more important than their meanings, although Supreme Clientele is far from meaningless (we’ll get to that later).

Even if Ghostface had come correct, he would still need beats to complement his styles. RZA returns, but he only produces four tracks. The rest are credited to RZA-disciples and other producers: Hassan, Choo the Specialist, the Beatnuts, and Carlos Broady, to name a few. Despite this, the album has a remarkable continuity of grimy luster and smooth ‘70s soul that never distracts from Ghostface’s palpable gusto. I get the sense that RZA steered the production around this vibe, and every track owes a considerable debt to his influence. “Nutmeg” uses a single flute note (which gives way to a glorious full soul orchestra) as a basic platform for Ghostface to burst out of the gates in full regalia. After a shout of “Break it down!” the head-nodding beat and shimmering piano of “One” kicks in, creating a magnificent one-two punch. Neither song has a chorus, keeping with the loose theme of freestyle rhymes. In fact, the first song with a proper hook is “Apollo Kids,” and that’s after the one-verse phenom “Saturday Night” and the disorienting unease of “Ghost Deini,” whose spooky chimes and subtle musique-concrete turntable work turn the song’s interlude (shout-outs to Marvin Gaye, Tupac, and the Notorious B.I.G. that are sung instead of rapped) into something alternatively sinister and poignant. “Apollo Kids” is Ghostface in full swagger, with triumphant brass and soul strings creating a crackling symphony of braggadocio. “Ghost is back, stretch Cadillacs, fruit cocktails” indeed. Raekwon joins up with his old teammate for a short verse that nevertheless confirms Immobilarity was just a mistake: “Yo, you taste a tea-spoon, 300 goons, stash balloons / Locked in lab rooms, hit with glock, stashed in Grant's Tomb.” “The Grain” sounds positively stark in comparison, but its old-school boom-bap flavor (spiced with enough blunted Wu atmosphere to make it distinct) continues Ghostface’s winning streak. “Buck 50” is the first of two excellent freestyle posse cuts. Method Man, Redman, and Cappadonna assist Ghost, with Cappa’s labored flow sounding just a tad embarrassing. This brings up an important point. Supreme Clientele is not a perfect album; its edges show, its surface is scuffed. But for perfection, one must pay the price of character, something that SC has in spades. When Cappadonna’s internal rhyming doesn’t quite work, or when Redman almost starts his verse too early, or when the coarse turntable scratching of “Deck’s Beat” just isn’t quite on time, the hip-hop gladiators are momentarily humanized. This “thrown-down-in-one-take” atmosphere was an essential asset of early Wu-Tang: perfection lacks the spark of imperfection. Furthermore, any excessive studio overdubs would ruin the considerable chemistry between the MCs, which is more important than pitch-perfect flows and rhymes.

After “Buck 50,” the album takes on a different tone. Ghost’s re-emergence has been properly (over)glorified, so now its time to revisit the stark streets once more. Ghostface appropriately rides the “Amen” break and a lumbering bass (producer Mathematics has studied the RZA well) on “Mighty Healthy,” and once again battle rhyming and violence become a hopelessly intertwined metaphor. A skit follows, but one that actually fits with the album. It’s a scene from Ghost’s days as a crack dealer: a humorously persistent basehead attempts to buy rocks from a reluctant Ghostface. Ghost is barely audible on the track; his growing disdain for the drug game is tangible. “Stay True” is a contemplative ballad of sorts, with Ghost taking stock over his current success, but finding little comfort: “Flair-laden Gucci joints I never wore / I might give 'em to my brother-in-law.” As if to summarize, 60-Second Assassin (resident Wu-Tang male crooner) sings “The streets is rough out here / Crack game came and had its years / What is a man to do?” Ghostface answers simply and enigmatically, “Brother-man, stay true. Stay true.” “We Made It” is a more concrete analysis of Ghostface’s journey from rags to riches. Anyone who makes it from crack dealer to hip-hop superstar can’t be faulted for a little gloating, but the titular refrain (supplied by Chip Banks from Raekwon’s American Cream Team) is equal parts boast and sigh of relief. “Deck’s Beat” comes next, with haphazard turntable scratching all but drowning out the beat. It’s the album’s least listenable moment, but with that dubious title comes a certain charm. The next track (the title is anybody’s guess; the liner notes are even less helpful than the notorious faulty ones for Liquid Swords) is an interlude of sorts. A chorus affirms that Wu-Tang Clan and Ironman will lead them to the Promised Land while RZA plays the part of frenetic street preacher, foreseeing the spread of Wu. It’s another odd track that lends more flavor to an album that glorifies idiosyncrasies. Things pick up again for “Malcolm,” a return to the organized crime verisimilitude of Ghostface’s previous efforts. But instead of a street-level reporter, Ghostface is now an overseer, running the game the way he sees fit: “Yo, let me tell you how the game go / We gettin’ rid of all the prostitutes / Tony wants the streets back for show / Too many hustlers, too many thieves / We're fuckin’ up who's willin’ to fight and teach the seeds.” “Child’s Play” is a humorous trip down Ghost’s childhood romantic encounters. The track’s unabashed nostalgia, coupled with some more of Ghostface’s efforts at singing give the song a light feel, cleansing the palette for the smashing “Cherchez LaGhost.” On other records, the inclusion of such a brazen club track might sound like pandering, but Ghostface’s natural energy makes a danceable song par for the course. Furthermore, the haunting vocals provided by Madam Majestic and the complicated arrangement of the song (two main musical themes with a grandiloquent theatrical outro) provide more than just a bass-heavy throb suitable for shaking ass. Ghostface’s short verse isn’t very impressive (and he’s overshadowed by a surprisingly superior showing from U-God), but the song is one of the most irresistible numbers on Supreme Clientele. “Wu Banga” is the last proper song on the album, another excellent group freestyle (Cappadonna is in questionable form once again) over an ethereal Mathematics beat (in full RZA-homage mode). After one more skit (Raekwon ranting with his voice pitchshifted a few octaves down), the album closes with a reprise of the “Wu-Tang Clan and Ironman” track, ending on the sentiment that Ghostface is a street prophet of sorts.

Supreme Clientele covers a lot of ground, but the album holds together its disparate parts well. That’s essentially the main theme of the album: this is Ghost struggling to combine the two distinct parts of his life. He was born and raised in the mean streets, and made a living in a dangerous criminal world. Very suddenly he was thrust into the public spotlight, a successful artist critically and commercially. Such a huge lifestyle change necessitated a change in musical focus, and where Forever fell flat, Supreme Clientele triumphs. Gone are the hackneyed and underdeveloped affirmations of unstoppable metaphysical force (indeed, Ghostface’s previous persona, the indomitable Ironman, has been all but jettisoned in favor of the more vulnerable Tony Starks). What we are left with is a man who doesn’t know where he stands. He’s unable and unwilling to completely sever ties to his criminal past, and that strains his status as a superstar. Perhaps this is the cause of the multiplying forks in Ghostface’s streams of consciousness: he has a lot on his mind. Amidst the extravagant imagery of “One” surface anxieties about snitches and government raids. “Saturday Night” shows the once-impervious Ironman harassed by law enforcement. Things reach an apex with “Stay True,” which features the most overt meditations on the schism in Ghostface’s lifestyles. The refrain’s “What was a man to do?” is an apology to both worlds. He struggles to explain his thug past to his rich social circles, and he justifies his acquisition of wealth and fame to the streets.

After all this soul-searching, where does Ghostface finally stand at the end? It’s a difficult question to answer, not the least due to Ghostface’s proclivity for incoherence. The samples from the cartoon “Ironman” (based on the comic book superhero) that bookend the album suggests that Ghost has come full circle, reverting back to the egotistical heights of his first solo album. While a change does occur, it will take Ghostface’s next album to fully articulate what it is. All Supreme Clientele leaves us with is ambiguity and a hunger to start on track one and experience the skuzzy splendor of Tony Starks all over again.

Wu-Tang Clan - The W (2000)

In spite of Forever’s success, the Wu legacy had been tarnished by a spree of uninspired solo outings (with Supreme Clientele being the obvious exception). Pressure was on for RZA and the rest of the group to show that they were still relevant. Thus, The W comes across as more than a little forced, as if the Wu overcompensated by having so much to prove. RZA has not abandoned his compositional aspirations, but he’s toned things down by including the scratchy sampling of early work. The juxtaposition is an interesting one, and makes for many intriguing musical ideas while not sacrificing attitude and atmosphere as Forever did.

“Chamber Music” starts things off at full bore, with a bevy of musique concrete flitting around a steady programmed beat. Vocal samples, strings, and drum clatters add color to the basic beat. “Careful (Click Click)” is even more obscure, with another steady drum machine holding time while foreboding alien tones, splashes, and other ephemera meld with noises of guns cocking and firing to create a confusing haze. The lyrical contributions are equally disorienting. RZA opens with “Wait, hold up, chill, what's that son? / Damn, nigga got fucked, shit, huh?” amidst gun chatter. Additions from U-God, Cappadonna (now officially the 10th member), and Ghostface do little to clear things up: “Something in the slum went rum-pum-pum-pum,” “Something in the street went bang bang!” “Something in the hole went (Click Click) / The boxcutter went (Click Click).” While the song never reaches the intensity of early Wu, it shows the group able to go in new and interesting directions.

“Hollow Bones” rides a sampled soul groove like many a Clan track before, but this time it’s been fiddled with in the studio, adding some flanging and panning effects. “Red Bull” never quite works, its stuttery bassline and MIDI synths never quite coalescing enough for Redman and Method Man to hit a good groove. The ending refrain of “It’s just a hobby that I picked up in the lobby,” is a good one though, and it gives way to the bombast of the interpolated James Bond horns of “One Blood Under W,” with Junior Reid adding some reggae flavor to the track.

I’ve been silent about the lyrics so far, but that’s for a reason. They aren’t very good. Sure, the Clan still raps circles around every other crew, but here the verses sound like stale rehashes of earlier work. GZA’s metaphors aren’t as potent and Method Man’s flows aren’t as vibrant. The engineering is strange as well: the sound quality of the vocals doesn’t mesh with the production. The vocals are often mixed far too high, which accentuates weak moments. Ghostface occasionally sounds like a nasal impression of himself. Perhaps RZA needed to invest in some new microphones.

The rapping is rarely less than adequate though, with the extreme standout of “Conditioner” (featuring Snoop Dogg rapping along with an ODB demo). Everything about “Conditioner” is lazy; it’s as if RZA knew attempting to resurrect ODB from old tapes wouldn’t really work, so he barely tried. The keyboard-demo beat sounds like something thrown down during Forever and forgotten, and the production and mastering is a muddy mess. Altogether, one of the Clan’s worst moments. Not even a GZA freestyle tagged on to the end of the track can resuscitate it.

However, the group wisely decided to follow up the misfire with two of the album’s best tracks. “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” recaptures the squelchy hop of its predecessor. “Let My Niggas Live” expands on the foreboding atmosphere of “Click Click,” with an off-kilter bass rumble supplemented with conga drum snaps. The tribal intensity no doubt led to the widespread rumors of the song’s popularity in war-torn Africa.

“I Can’t Go to Sleep” mines the same heavily-orchestrated soul territory that so frequently captures Ghostface’s imagination. He’s never sounded as overemotional as he does here, sounding somewhere between agony and exhaustion as he rails against a former friend, the nature of whose betrayal remains ambiguous. RZA also contributes his own mawkish sentiments, mourning the fallen of the civil rights movement. As usual, RZA is the member most likely to reach for greater significance in his rhymes, but his overwrought delivery doesn’t quite work. The transition to the next track, the churning club banger “Do You Really” doesn’t work either, although the song is quite good (Method Man still sounds a little off his game, but he nails the hook). Just like “Do You Really,” “Gravel Pit” relies on just one loop, albeit a loop with bounce and style to spare (that flute lick!). Once again, propulsive funk brings out the best in the MCs: Method Man’s delivers a fantastic flow on par with his work on Tical. Ghostface turns in a sufficient turn, and U-God once again proves that although he can’t always hold his own, he can provide essential support to a track. “Jah World” closes the album, a strange fusion of Enrico Morricone spaghetti westerns and Five Percent philosophy. RZA once again pulls together disparate elements into odd paranoid impressions: “They tried to snatch up our beats, son, and steal our culture / And German Catholics, whitewashing Roman sculptures / How dare you try to deny Allah's intelligence? / Kidnap the truth, and destroying the black evidence.”

Despite being a largely strong collection of songs, The W still feels as if it lacks something. Looking at the individual tracks doesn’t reveal much: with a few exceptions, they are solid, almost remarkably so. But things don’t really gel, and although tracks like “Conditioner” don’t help things, blame doesn’t squarely fall upon the less-than-stellar songs. The problem is the tangible effort by the Clan to recapture old glory. Sometimes it works: they remind you why they were so revolutionary in the first place. Other times it just sounds forced. The portent-to-the-point-of-draining soundscapes, the ballads, the obvious club tracks, the abundance of guests, the overactive beats: this is Wu Tang asserting that they still matter. The post-Forever climate made even the Clan’s most strident fans question the relevance of the group, and now Wu Tang must work to get them back. The result is a solid effort, but lacking the effortlessness that made their early releases seem like they merely set their lives to tape. The W lacks the immediacy of Enter the Wu-Tang, and the assurance of the early solo albums. Its tentative steps toward satisfying fans and critics undermine the music. Ultimately, The W is just too calculating to be a complete success.

RZA as Bobby Digital - Digital Bullet (2001)

The first Bobby Digital album was a little-loved exploration into RZA’s prog-hop wishes and Casio-tone dreams. Wu fans still clamored for a RZA album proper, but instead were greeted with another foray into the warped mind of RZA’s alter-ego superhero. While the protagonist remains the same, the album is quite an evolution from the sound of Bobby Digital in Stereo. Sampling has returned full force, but RZA hasn’t eschewed the glam-cheese of his keyboards and drum machines completely. The album’s intro and opening song, “Show You Love,” point to the same overwrought melodies of the first Bobby Digital album, but Digital Bullet is a far messier affair than even its predecessor. RZA’s ideas are all over the place—experimentation seems to have become an end in and of itself. This wanton stylistic exploration fails as much as it succeeds, but when coupled with the bizarre Bobby Digital persona, Digital Bullet’s tracks stand out as some of the weirdest in the Wu oeuvre.

When one of RZA’s experiments works, it affirms his place as one of hip hop’s most talented visionaries. “Glocko Pop,” an electro journey into cartoonish noir, would not sound out of place on an Antipop Consortium record. “Must Be Bobby” is probably the best song on the album musically. Decadent sitars chime with tablas, and a cooing voice intones “Bah-bee.” But the Eastern theme is quickly discarded in favor of haunting piano and pounding drum machines. The rhymes and flows are stellar and innovative: “I'm bound to play Napoleon, and blow a nose off / your Sphinx; your stumble rap style, your flow's off / like Kunta, tryin' to run with his chopped toes off.” “Domestic Violence Part 2,” repaints the original in a fantastic appropriation of Dirty South bounce (with clattering bongos in the background!). “Do U” rides a slinky synth and a Dionne Warwick sample to great effect, and “Be a Man” features a breathtaking stream-of-consciousness journey through the tribulations of a hood denizen who is finally educated by Digital: “It's a bad situation bein’ a man, but we got to handle it.”

Almost all of the good tracks are in the first half of the album, and as such, the second half drags when it doesn’t simply bewilder. “Fools” never really works: the hook (“Everybody plays a fool, sometimes / There's no exceptions to the rules, get your nines”) provokes eye-rolls more than head-nods. The first single, the Tony-Touch-produced “La Rhumba” confirms everyone’s worst fears about the Clan “selling out.” Here, the formidable figures of RZA and Method Man become mere figureheads for a trite, cheap-sounding Latin-flavored beat. “Shady” cribs from Destiny’s Child’s playbook, with a girl group on the hook complaining about Bobby’s dalliances. “Break Bread,” “Throw Your Flag Up,” and “Black Widow Pt. 2” are completely bereft of compelling musical ideas; the latter is rescued from obsolescence by a hilarious ODB appearance. The creepy rumble of “Bong Bong” is ruined by derivative lyrics, and the dub aspirations of “Righteous Way” never come to full fruition, bogged down by MIDI horns.

The final two tracks attempt to inject some deeper material to an album constantly distracted by women, guns, and drugs. Bobby Digital tries to rise above such petty things. “Build Strong” sees Bobby in an introspective crisis. He yearns for something with more substance in his life, something with meaning. “Enemy of self physically enslaved / By the luxuries of this world so I behave / Like a man inside the grave” he mourns. His words might hold more emotional weight if RZA didn’t decide to deliver his rhymes in such a self-consciously distraught manner; the sentiments are further obscured by the clicks and whirrs of stock drum machine effects—rim shots, shakers, cowbells—seemingly thrown in at random. Bobby reasserts himself in “The Sickness” in order to save the world from the evils of “this wicked society.” “I turn the most degenerate hood into a pop star,” he crows, and one can hardly argue with such a verifiable pronouncement of clout. Unfortunately, the beat does little to back up his triumphant swagger, once again undermining RZA with trite melodies and uninventive percussion.

The maddening erraticism of Digital Bullet is probably its defining trait. For every track that shores up RZA’s reputation as a producer, there’s a track that does nothing but take up space on the CD. RZA’s lyrical abilities are still unquestioned, but giving opportunities to underwhelming Wu-Fam MCs like Jamie Sommers and Beretta 9 substantially detract from the album. The high points are higher than anything on In Stereo, but Digital Bullet’s inconsistency makes it far less listenable. However, RZA provides some hints towards his long-awaited solo album, bereft of alter-ego ciphers. References are placed throughout the album: “Bobby Digital may switch back to Bobby Steels,” (from “Be a Man”) “From me springs the divine Prince Rakheem” (from “Build Strong”). The final track title, “The Sickness,” points to the RZA album’s rumored title, “The Cure.” So will RZA finally abandon his Bobby Digital character, having mined its worth completely? Probably not: he’s stated he’s working on a third Digital installment. Perhaps the dream of a true RZA album is just that.

Ghostface Killah - Bulletproof Wallets (2001)

I was wary when Bulletproof Wallets came out. “Another Ghostface album already?” I thought. It was almost two years since the release of Supreme Clientele, but I was still digesting the finer nuances of the previous album. “They must have thrown quality control out the window,” I assumed. For a while I refused to even listen to the album, certain it would be a disappointment along the lines of Immobilarity or Beneath the Surface. The silky R&B; track, “Never Be the Same Again,” the lead-off single, only confirmed my preconceptions.

When I finally did listen to Bulletproof Wallets, I was disappointed. The rough-hewn edges that gave Supreme Clientele its character had been smoothed over. Disorienting tales straddling gutter and gala were gone in favor of shallow party jams. But while Bulletproof Wallets unquestionably fell short of the goals I set for it, it was not the across-the-board failure I’d expected. Ghostface himself was still in top form, and although his focus had changed, he still spit the same charismatic, impressionistic rhymes that made him a superstar in the first place. The album grew on me, and while it certainly doesn’t measure up to Supreme Clientele, it’s a good album, and a logical progression of the Ghostface saga.

Supreme Clientele saw our hero contemplating his place in the world, torn between two lifestyles. Bulletproof Wallets is his final decision. He’s abandoned the mean streets and embraced the glitter and glamour of the ultra-rich lifestyle. The first song, “Maxine,” is an homage to his days as a thug, reporting a horrifying episode of violence inside a project apartment. The thunderous horns and the presence of a revitalized Raekwon give the track an energy and immediacy that hearkens back to the best moments of Ironman. But after that, the album is one concession to the club after another. Ghost has no need for stark tales of hitmen and drug dealers; he’s here to have fun and make bodies move, while indulging his predilections for silky ‘70s soul. And what’s the harm in that?

Well, to answer my own rhetorical question, Ghostface oversteps his bounds. Recasting himself as a sensitive ladies man (a rap Barry White perhaps?) isn’t always convincing. Ghostface reproaches an unfaithful lover in “Never Be the Same Again,” but lines like “Ask you one question, was it good? / He have you on the wall like me, was it hood?” come off as silly instead of emotionally wrenching. “Strawberry” shows Ghost once again floundering as a seductive heartthrob: “Burnt you with candle wax fast while you was slobbin' mine.” The worst of these ballads comes toward the end, with “Love Session,” a song completely ruined by a beat fit for New Edition. However, even when Ghostface fails at appropriating the soul man style, his unique character shines through with raps that sound eminently natural—like his half of a conversation.

More successful are the party jams. Alchemist provides an upbeat jam with some tastefully sweeping strings for “Flowers” (also featuring supreme Clan partier Method Man). The hard funk of “The Juks” recalls high rolling casinos, as Superb exhorts listeners to “Pop their collars.” But the biggest club moment comes smack dab in the middle of the disc, with “Ghost Showers,” whose propulsive bass throb immediately calls to mind Supreme Clientele’s “Cherchez LaGhost.” Female singers sum up Ghost’s transformation as the song builds. “He made up his mind / That every little thing he does / Be designed to entertain you.” Ghost bursts out in full bling, “Crown Royal bottles in the back, blowin’ Indo.” Sure, it’s more than a little derivative of “Cherchez,” but it’s just too fun to matter.

Not every track falls into a nice categorization. Some songs are simply strange and inexplicable. “Jealousy” allows Ghost to muse briefly about the titular vice in a completely unrevealing way: “Jealousy comes from a few forms, such as, like, who get the most pussy. Or, I heard he got the most money.” The refrain of “The Hilton” merely confounds: “We laptop niggas / Thugs in the computers.” And most disappointingly, several juvenile interludes based around weed are sprinkled throughout the album. I’d expect this coming from Fieldy’s Dreams, but not from Tony Starks.

But this is not Tony Starks’ album. That was Supreme Clientele. Aside from a few references to “Starks Enterprises,” our protagonist is referred to simply as “Ghost” or “Ghostface.” Maybe this is the first true Ghostface Killah album, without obscuring the rapper with alter egos or extraneous personas. If so, it’s a mixed blessing: Ghostface has shown remarkable prowess creating characters to reflect aspects of his life. If Bulletproof Wallets is any indication, Ghost may have finally reconciled the disparate portions of his life. He’s decided to fully embrace the world of glitz that tantalized him in Supreme Clientele, and while there are a few acknowledgements to his more violent preoccupations, they hardly dominate his psyche. Unfortunately, this may mean his most compelling work is behind him. But his rap skills are always entertaining and often enthralling, and his new devotion to club hits hasn’t led to total surrender to the mainstream (or really much surrendering at all; I get the impression that Ghost may not know, or care to know what the current hot trends in hip hop are). Thus, Bulletproof Wallets can be considered a success, even if it pales in comparison to Supreme Clientele. Ghost may be past his prime, but he still has me anticipating what he’ll do next.

Wu-Tang Clan - Iron Flag (2001)

The Clan must have sensed the hesitancy and lack of focus on their previous outings: they reunited in New York City to record Iron Flag instead of spreading the work out between the two coasts as they did with Forever and The W. The result is a concentrated slab of Jeep-rocking hard funk that blazes a new trail for the group. The dark obscure haze—what began as Wu-Tang’s hallmark but started to choke them by The W—is gone. Instead, RZA and his collaborators stick to beats that draw from the Southern-fried rollicking funk of The Coup and Outkast while preserving the idiosyncrasies that make Wu distinctive. Yes, once again RZA has farmed out some of the production, but the album’s consistency of sound and vision exposes his overarching guidance on every track.

Maybe credit for this new sense of direction should go to a general slimming down: of lyrical scope, of the complexity of the beats, even of the group itself. Gone are verses that warn of apocalypse or Armageddon, or brood under the heavy blanket of perpetual paranoia. The MCs stick to their strengths: street-honed battle raps, crime narratives, and tight flows. The closest anyone gets to the magniloquence of Forever is Ghostface as he addresses the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. “Where the four planes at, huh? Is you insane, bitch? / Fly that shit over my hood and get blown to bits,” he warns in “Rules.” Never has Ghost been so lucid, or so in touch with the beliefs of most of America. All the MCs seem invigorated by something: even Raekwon, who’s talent had been on the wane, sounds more lively than he had in years. The beats probably help things. The dilletantish excursions of The W have been abandoned in favor of stripped down tracks that accentuate the beats and basslines (more apt to move asses than nod heads). Stacatto horn samples drive many of the tracks, especially the astounding “Uzi” (the album centerpiece and obvious first single). The tempos have been accelerated from the funereal pace of the The W, which makes the rapping sound more energetic. Each MC gets plenty of face time as well: each song features several rappers rotating the mic, keeping things fresh and entertaining. Cappadonna is gone: rumor has it that his manager was an FBI informant sent to keep tabs on RZA’s alledged ties to gunrunning. Junior Reid’s langorous reggae has been replaced by the fierce New York ragga of Suga Bang Bang, who provides a hook to “Rules” as enthralling as it is unintelligible.

Iron Flag is by no means perfect. A couple tracks never gather steam—both “Radioactive” and “Dashing” ride loops for too long, without catchy hooks. The maniacal presence of Ol Dirty is often missed, although a lukewarm Flava Flav attempts to inject some of the same energy into “Soul Power.” But the main gripe I have with Iron Flag is its departure from the Wu sound. Sure, it probably made for a better album overall, as The W proved that sticking to close to old habits could prove enervating. Yet I doubt Iron Flag will ever occupy the same niche as 36 Chambers or Liquid Swords or Cuban Linx. It’s a little too polished, and still a bit too calculating. Wu Tang will never be like it was in the pre-Forever days. The group was young and hungry. It drew upon sources of inspiration that were largely untapped by other crews—Eastern philosophy, Islam, comic books, kung-fu. Perhaps most importantly, they weren’t pop stars. Today, their albums come laden with commercial expectations. Granted, Wu projects display more creative daring than most major-label acts, but with fame and fortune came a lifestyle change. It’s a life easy to get used to (Ghostface in particular has found a home-away-from-home with it). Being a pop star means competing with other stars, and keeping in touch with what’s going on. Maybe that’s the crux of the issue. When the Clan emerged, they sounded completely different from anything else out at the time. They had been isolated, and they drew upon what they knew to craft a sound like none other. Now they are immersed in the pop world. They are constantly in tune with everything coming out on the radio. Instead of bringing something completely new to the game, they draw upon new trends to adjust their sound. This isn’t really a criticism; it’s really the only thing that could happen. Anything else would just end up sounding tired and stale. Nevertheless, the magic of the first Wu epoch has faded. They’ll probably never reach the heights of “Protect Ya Neck” or “Incarcerated Scarfaces” again. The most we can ask is that they still attempt to remain fresh, which they always do (albeit with varying success). Wu-Tang may never be the same, but it’s for that very reason that I’ll always follow them.

Del F. Cowie
Jay Babcock
Brett S. Berliner
Todd L. Burns

By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2004-11-15
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