Album Reviews


Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Forever  Hear it Now

RS: 3.5of 5 Stars


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As hip-hop enters its 20s, the music's influence is everywhere, from the rap metal of Rage Against the Machine to the revved-up break beats of the Chemical Brothers. The irony is that rap itself has never been more inward looking. Rappers agonize like earnest folkies over how "pure" their music is. More than ever, they are sampling from one another's work rather than from outside sources. For the last few years, hip-hop – a genre built on an anything-goes, mix-and-match aesthetic – largely has been conversing with itself.

Which makes the Wu-Tang Clan all the more exceptional for creating its own mythological world. On both its 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and its long-awaited new double disc, Wu-Tang Forever, the nine-member Staten Island, N.Y., crew imagines a self-contained universe that mixes hip-hop culture with adolescent-pop flotsam. The Clan's cosmology is made up of references to kung-fu films, comic books and gangster movies (the name is taken from the Hong Kong B movie Wu-Tang vs. Shaolin); religious doctrine from the quasi-Islamic 5 Percent Nation sect (which has long been popular among New York-area rappers); and hauntingly descriptive tales of ghetto hustlers and victims. It's a world as escapist as PM Dawn's hippie excursions but as rugged as the Notorious B.I.G.'s violent tales. The result is a compelling friction between fantasy and harsh urban reality.

Since Enter the Wu-Tang, the crew has expanded its unique world with five solo albums, each featuring production mastermind RZA's trademark (and much-copied) ghostly strings and scratchy, lumbering grooves. Thanks to the success of those individual LPs, Wu-Tang Forever (which clocks in at about two hours) is more than just a sophomore album – it's a supergroup reunion.

For good reason, RZA hasn't fiddled with his basic production formula on his new effort. Wu-Tang Forever is cleaner and more stripped down than the dense, raw Enter the Wu-Tang, but the familiar pieces of B-movie dialogue and loops of strings and piano are still present. And though some of the first album's madcap energy is gone, the music's effect is still mesmerizing. RZA's grooves evoke a smoky Staten Island basement as effectively as reggae conjures a Jamaican dance hall. There are minor musical twists here and there: "Reunited" features a live violin player cutting sharply through the beats. On the crashing, fuzz-box-driven "For Heavens Sake," RZA cleverly plays with the tempo of a snippet of soulful piano and vocals, slowing it down for the song's chorus and speeding it up for the verses – the result is both catchy and unearthly. "Deadly Melody" has RZA seamlessly interweaving the voices of six rappers to the point where you can't tell when one person's line ends and another's begins.

Still, Wu-Tang Forever is primarily a platform for each Clan member's huge lyrical gifts. The most talented of them are true rhyme virtuosos: the charismatic Method Man, a master of elastic phrasings; Genius, a k a GZA, a fount of real-world and music-biz wisdom; Ol' Dirty Bastard, the group's crazed, raunchy clown; inner-city storytellers Raekwon and Ghost-face Killah; and the mercurial, pensive RZA himself, who can career from conventional boasting to mytho-poetic musing in a flash. But even the crew's second tier of rappers – the stern Inspektah Deck, the lackadaisical Masta Killa and the basso profun-do U-God – are among the finest MCs in hip-hop.

Raekwon and Ghostface Killah flex their tag-team skills on "The M.G.M.," a detailed diary of a rapper's night out at a boxing match at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas (significantly, the hotel where Tupac Shakur attended a Mike Tyson fight hours before Shakur was shot to death). Ghostface's ghetto vignettes are packed with heart-stopping lyrical brush strokes; in the brutal anti-gun tune "Impossible," he describes hunching over a gunned-down buddy as the victim's girlfriend runs up in her nightgown "with no shoes on/Screaming ..."

The self-described "educational" elements on Wu-Tang Forever are less convincing. In the album's overlong opening cut, "Wu-Revolution," an elder named Poppa Wu preaches 5 Percenter scripture for a full six minutes. But don't expect Ghostface Killah or Ol' Dirty Bastard to obey any Islamic rules about respecting women: Each lets loose misogynous rants in "The Projects" and "Maria," respectively. On the other hand, in "A Better Tomorrow" (named after a John Woo film), RZA warns that "you can't party your life away/Drink your life away/Smoke your life away/Fuck your life away ...' cause your seeds grow up the same way." It might as well be Bob Marley preaching moderation, though – two songs later, Method Man's pot smoking has him "fried like a bad perm."

But, hell, you don't watch a kung-fu flick for the plot, and Wu-Tang Forever delivers enough action sequences to please most moviegoers. As you might expect, there's some filler in this 27-song marathon. The bland "City," "Duck Seazon" and "Heaterz" are Wu-Tang-by-numbers – spare beats, spooky samples and tiresome, generic rhymes. Even on Wu-Tang Forever's most powerful moments, the uninitiated might need subtitles for the willfully obscure lyrics: "Don't think we doing this just for anybody," Raekwon declares as the album closes. "We doing this shit for certain people ... certain fans."

Don't let him put you off; like Metallica and Publishers Clearing House, RZA and friends know the advantages of making a personal connection with their public – a connection that's founded on fiercely original, fully realized beats and rhymes. If the rest of the rap world can rise to their creative challenge, "a better tomorrow" may yet be in store for hip-hop.


(Posted: Jun 26, 1997)


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