The Wu-Tang Clan with Isaac Hayes: I Can’t Go to Sleep
his is not overdramatic. I mean, the song isn’t. Starting this piece on the defensive might be. But we exist in a world where the riff-caked relational folderol of Kelly Clarkson and the distracted pubtakes of Mike Skinner reflect enough emotional resonance for us, and usually, that’s enough. Nobody wants to be the one crying with the jukebox. When something truly gripping comes by, though, it’s a treat, a reminder that this isn’t just a structurally complex hobby, something that lends itself to bulleted lists and curations. I admit that hood-is-tough tales are easy to come by, and in another forum, I could probably draw up a Top Ten Sad Ghetto Songs. Here, though, it’s enough to say that no one can bring the form to sheet-clutching life like the Wu.
More specifically here, Ghostface and the RZA. Speaking of lesser drama, the two stretch themselves out over the slow strut of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By,” itself a Bacharach soured-love song orchestrated into magnificent hugeness. But the transformation of musical source matter is just one trick. There’s more, and it’s a strain for me to single one out.
Let’s go for the major one: the RZA cries.
When Rob, the co-host of our college radio show, placed The W in the CD tray, that was his selling point. The RZA cries; he gets out sixteen bars and then has to leave the studio. Ghostface’s verse was typically great, referencing the government-gives-us-guns-and-drugs conspiracy theory, railing at an unnamed betrayer, and even making a production gimmick (rewinding the track because he has more to say, bastards!) seem spontaneous. Pure paranoia keeps him awake.
The RZA? He’s all about the tragic sweep of history, the tenebrous arc of forces keeping goodness in check. Anyone can name-drop MLK and Malcolm X (and seemingly every rapper has), but the RZA takes a step back, recognizing the personal losses involved with the two leaders’ death: “They shot Malcolm in the chest front of his little seeds / Jesse watched, as they shot King on the balcony.”
The most poignant thing he sees involves Jackie Kennedy, a white woman only tangentially related to the plight of black Americans (“Oh Jacqueline, you heard the rifle shots crackling / Her husband head in her hands, you tried to put it back in”). He doesn’t even need to mention her husband’s name; what really gets him is the awful image of a wife numbly trying to piece together her husband’s broken head. He’s feeding off pure human despair, And sure enough, this is where he loses it. The 35-year-old strings begin fidgeting, ratcheting up the stakes. Now he’s screaming.
AMERICA'S WATCHIN’, BLOOD-STAINED INKBLOTCHESAnd he calms down some but now he’s just buzzing, stalking Staten “drunk as a fuck,” begging for someone to provoke him into something, any kind of middling blow against the darkness tainting all his (and the Wu’s, and black America’s—yes this is drama, but if this is unworthy of the tag what is?) successes. He’s breaking. He thinks about getting smashed (“What should I do? Grab a blunt or a brew?”) He thinks about retaliation (“Grab a .22 and run out there AND PUT THIS FUCKING VIOLENCE IN YOU?”).
MEDGAR TOOK ONE TO THE SKULL FOR INTERGRATING COLLEGE
WHAT'S THE SCIENCE? SOMEBODY? THIS IS TRICK KNOWLEDGE
THEY TRY TO KEEP US ENSLAVED AND STILL SCRAPE FOR DOLLARS…
And he breaks. The strings vanish, yielding to a stinging, laconic guitar solo. The RZA mumbles, “I can’t go to sleep, I can’t shut ‘em son, I can’t…” and pushes the mic away. And in comes Mr. Hayes, Ike himself, at the Wu’s request, to kick the RZA when he’s down:
Don't let the game make you lose your headSo yes, the RZA cries (albeit once he gets out a full verse). Rob knew there was more to it. Yeah, it’s a Black man getting sensitive, but he’d earned it, and he couldn’t let his sobs just hang there, unanswered and unredeemed. That he recruits an elder soul statesman to chide him for losing heart speaks volumes about the RZA’s vision. No matter how thinly-spread the Wu continues to be in the twilight of its group era, “I Can’t Go to Sleep” is evidence of how heavy, how real, how truly dramatic they could get when the occasion summoned.
You should be calling the shots instead
The power is in your hands
Stop all this crying, and be a man.
Myself, I slept pretty well last night. Coming to my car, under the highway in the heart of downtown, I thought I’d lost my keys at one of several bars. A rotund security guard wheeled over to hand them to me. Instantly indebted, I reached hastily for a five, but he smiled it off. It was his job, he told me in a sub-Saharan accent. What he was there for.