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CD REVIEW: Nas, Wu-Tang Clan show growth, change with new albums

By Mike Kurtz

Badger Herald (U. Wisconsin)


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CD REVIEW: Nas, Wu-Tang Clan show growth, change with new albums

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(U-WIRE) MADISON, Wis. -- Releasing a ground-breaking first album can be a double-edged sword.

When the Wu-Tang Clan dropped Enter The 36 Chambers in 1993, the organized chaos and genius that prevailed throughout the album sent shockwaves through the rap world and put the group at the forefront of the hip-hop industry.

Likewise, when Nasir Jones gave the world the classic Illmatic a year later, music fans were bowled over by the stunning maturity and lyrical prowess that the barely 20-year-old possessed at such a young age.

However, times have changed since these two albums and the luster has faded from the once-shining crown jewels of the rap world. Wu-Tang's follow-up efforts to this point have been plagued by single-minded solo projects taking precedence over collective efforts.

Similarly, while Nas entered the rap world with critical praise, his recent works have been commercially successful, yet harshly criticized as underachieving albums filled with shallow declarations of wealth and extravagance. In essence, what elevated Nas and The Wu-Tang Clan to their exalted status has at the same time hurt both. The lyrical perfection shown on Enter The 36 Chambers and Illmatic raised the bar so high that neither party has been able to reach it since.

Iron Flag, the Wu's first effort since 2000's mediocre The W, has the group putting forth some of their best work since the mid-'90s. Reclaiming their stellar and original style on "Uzi" and "In The Hood," the clansmen harness the feeling of an all-out lyrical attack and transfer it perfectly on wax. In addition, RZA's distinctive trademark style of hard beats combined with unique samples provides a perfect backdrop to the various personalities of his compatriots.

While RZA's sound dominates Iron Flag, the Clan took a chance when they ventured out of their clique for production assistance. The risk appears to be well worth it, especially on the Trumaster-manufactured "Y'all Been Warned," a hypnotic cut peppered with a classic Wu sound. As good as the production is, however, it is the well-delivered verses by the rappers that will help the album to stand the barrage of critics waiting for another lukewarm performance.

While Nas may have been battling the ghost of Illmatic for the last eight years, he has recently come under fire from a much more biting enemy -- namely fellow New Yorker and sudden enemy Jay-Z.

Over the last year their feud has become the most celebrated and closely followed rap rivalry since B.I.G. vs. 2Pac, with both MCs trading insults on record. After Jay-Z released The Blueprint, which includes the now infamous "The Takeover," the rap world was left to wonder how Nas would respond. The result speaks for itself.

Nas is no longer the talented young rapper who painted a vivid and powerful picture of his young life. However, Stillmatic doesn't portray him as the same Nas who seemed to lose his focus somewhere in the last few years. What we are given is a rapper who has released an album that answers several questions.

Nas responds to his detractors with expert and deadly lyrical force on "Ether" and "Destroy and Rebuild." He shows the talent and emotion that critics have been looking for on "One Mic" and "You're Da Man," while experimenting with backward storytelling on the impressive "Rewind."

There are glimpses of the lazy and uninspired rapper that corrupted his previous releases, but for the first time in awhile, this incarnation of Nas isn't possessed by this demon. Instead, he has made an album that steps up to the expectations surrounding it.

Hip-hop fans have a problem with first impressions. If Nas had never made Illmatic and if Wu-Tang never gave us Enter The 36 Chambers, maybe the music world would have appreciated their recent works a lot more.

With these new releases comes the evidence that it is time to move beyond the past. The young and hungry rappers that made their debut records are not the same ones giving us these new albums -- they can't be. However, both Iron Flag and Stillmatic are triumphs -- these "new artists" are not to be disregarded.  

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