By Kyle Rainville
“Straight from the Shaolin…”
You know those albums that are so good that you don’t even know how to properly describe them? Well, this is one of those albums for me. Usually I don’t like reviewing these types of albums because not only do I not know how to properly describe the incredible quality of the music but even if I did know how to describe it, it wouldn’t do the album justice. These types of albums are the ones you literally have to hear to believe.
So since I’ve already started reviewing this one, I might as well throw my history with it into the fray. This was one of the first hip-hop albums I bought in my long journey through the world of hip-hop culture. Looking back, it was NOT a good entry choice. I didn’t care much for this at first. It was just too abrasive, raw, and aggressive for my tastes back then. It just didn’t make sense to me.
After furthering my experience with hip-hop with artists like Ice Cube, N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, Nas, Public Enemy, and A Tribe Called Quest, I always found myself going back to this album to see if it made any more sense. Luckily for me, it did eventually make sense and when it did, I couldn’t get enough of it. I swear there was a good few months where this album was the only one I’d play in my car. All of my friends could attest to this fact.
Wu-Tang originated from New York. There are 9 official members and nowadays, there are countless affiliates. RZA was the mastermind behind the whole project and he even had a “masterplan” for how Wu-Tang would execute its domination. The Wu struck a deal with Loud Records that allowed the rappers to individually venture to different record labels. RZA’s plan was to basically help the Wu rappers begin their careers with albums produced by him all on different record labels. It was a plan of saturation and a plan of diversifying their strengths and influence. The plan was only set up from this album to the next Wu-Tang album in 1997 when RZA would release control of the artists and they were finally allowed to create and formulate their own albums by themselves.
So before I talk about the actual music, let’s talk about the group. Before this album, never had hip-hop seen a group try to create an album with 9 rappers. It was unheard of and back then it probably seemed crazy. What this allowed the group do though was implement a large number of personalities, styles, and dynamics into the group synergy. I don’t know if it was through design or luck but RZA was somehow able to put together a group of MCs that not only differed greatly from each other, but still retained an unheard of chemistry with each other. Every rapper here sounds absolutely incredible bouncing verses off each other and excluding Tribe’s second album (The Low End Theory), I’ve still never heard an album with the amount of MC chemistry that this album contains. It’s simply unbelievable.
So quickly, let’s talk about each rappers presence and style:
RZA/The Abbot: The mastermind of this group. Not only was he responsible for putting together the group, the artistic direction, and the overall business ventures, but he also solely produced this whole project. His rap style is somewhat jittery and manic in its flow and mic presence, but he’s got an unmistakable and frantic delivery that would be even more defined and refined for the 1994 Gravediggaz album.
GZA/The Genius: Cousin of RZA. His delivery is somewhat stoic and very calculated. His lyrics are probably the most complex out of the group. His style is highly defined by complex metaphors and similes. Creating vivid pictures and flows, he’s the rapper all the other members of the Wu looked up to.
Ghostface Killah: He’s the first rapper you hear on the album. He’s got a high-pitched voice and a high-energy delivery. His lyrics are usually braggadocio, battle-raps, and sometimes grim stories. You wouldn’t know it from this album, but Ghost contained the most potential out of all the Wu members and he’d also be the one that developed his style the most as the years went on. It’s arguable that he’s also the most relevant Wu member today.
Raekwon: The short-fat guy drug dealer of the Wu-Tang. Like Ghost he has a slightly high-pitched voice (at least compared to the other members) and he often slurs his raps in a way that would make them hard to understand alone. Add in his constant street-slang and you’ve got one of the most unique styles in the clan. I’d say that Rae has the best performance on the whole album, but not only that, he’s also the member that appears the most.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard: The drunken monk of the Wu. As Method Man said, “there’s no father to his style, that’s why he’s the Ol’ Dirty Bastard.” And Method Man was right, never before have I heard a style like ODB’s. It’s very manic, slurred, off-kilter, sometimes off flow, with weird and offensive lyrics to boot. He’s basically the exact inverse of GZA’s style. He’s also, believe it or not, cousin to RZA and GZA.
Inspectah Deck/Rebel INS: The master of battle-raps. This guy has one of the best flows in the clan and he absolutely murders every posse cut he is on. I believe he has the second most appearances behind Raekwon. When he’s not battle-rapping and eating up other rappers, he’s telling grim tales of depravity like on C.R.E.A.M..
U-God: Unfortunately, U-God doesn’t have many features on this record but when he does, he raps well. His rhymes are often non-sequitir brag raps with his signature gravely voice.
Masta Killa: One of the last members added (Killah Priest almost replaced him), Masta Killa only has one verse on the album, but it’s one of the best verses of all. Oddly enough though, Masta Killa’s style is much more laid-back and refrained on future projects. If you didn’t know, GZA actually taught Masta Killa how to rap which is possible why they sound very similar in their style and pen-game.
Method Man: This guy was planned from the beginning to be Wu-Tang’s big star and you can’t really argue with that plan. Possibly the best flow in the clan, Method Man has a totally unique voice that’s dusted from all his weed-use and a charisma that matches your favorite comedians. He’s also the only member to get a song named after him on this album. Meth is mostly a punchline rapper but he also possesses an uncanny ability to provide catchy hooks to songs.
So now let’s talk about the album. Consisting of 11 songs + one remix, this album would be incredibly lean if it wasn’t for the few skits it has. Oddly enough, this is one of the few albums where I enjoy the skits and never skip them. RZA’s production is the first thing you’ll notice while listening to this album. He practically invented a whole new style of producing with this record. Using dusty and distant pianos with muddy bass and hard-hitting drums, RZA re-defined what it meant to make underground hip-hop and in the years to come, everyone would be influenced by his style. Sometimes he even utilizes horns to an incredible effect.
Now the best part of the whole record is how these MCs work with the beats. The record mostly consists of clever battle-raps that are approached differently by each member. But no matter what song it is, the beat is complemented 100% perfectly by the execution of the rappers. Take Wu-Tang Clan Aint Nuthin ta F*** Wit for example. Each MC steps up their energy and delivery to bring that song to the next level. Or how about album opener, Bring da Ruckus where each rapper constructs a fluid and thought out rap that flows perfectly along the gritty hard-edged beat? I could throw out examples for days but you get the point.
There are a few songs that aren’t filled to the brim with ruthless battle-raps though. Can It Be All So Simple features Rae and Ghost reminiscing when times used to be more innocent and more….well, simple. It also finds them looking forward to the future ahead though. C.R.E.A.M. is widely agreed to not only be Wu-Tang’s best song, but also one of the best rap songs of all time. It features Rae and Inspectah Deck explaining corruption, poverty, depravity, and how it causes people in the ghetto to do what they do. It’s also an interesting look on hip-hop as a hustle and as a business. It could, in fact, act as the anthem for all rap music. Tearz on the other hand focuses on early death. “Why is it always the good ones that have to die?” asks RZA over the melancholy and laid-back beat. Ghost is also on the track and he tells a compelling tale of a man who refused to wear a condom and eventually caught HIV. He died two years later.
If it wasn’t clear already, let me tell you straight up; This album, unlike many hip-hop albums back then and even now, has an incredible amount of dynamics. One of the most common failings and shortcomings of rap albums to me is the lack of interesting dynamics but this album has that in spades! Not only does it feature 9 different MCs with 9 different styles, but it also features many different tracks with different vibes. I also forgot to mention one of the first appeals of the Wu. They have this five-percenter lingo thing going on (which would get bigger and more present as time went on) and they also have (well, RZA does anyway) a tendency to inject samples from old-school kung-fu flicks into the songs. That sets up the battle-rap environment perfectly and when you hear Inspectah Deck rapping about cutting you in half with a sword…well you kind of believe him. No one had even though to combine hip-hop with kung-fu/martial arts before this album. If you know the history of the Wu, you’d also know that RZA and Dirty used to often cut class to go catch matinees of martial arts films. They’d supposedly just watch them all day. Of course, some members are more interested in drug-dealing and stick-ups than kung-fu, but the overall vibe of it is incredibly unique.
Well, I think that pretty much explains why I like this album so much. I’ve never heard another album quite like it, not even by the Wu themselves. Not only is it aggressive and ruthless, but it’s also fun and thought-provoking. It has something for every fan of hip-hop. The Wu set the blueprint for what a rap-crew could do and what they could achieve. RZA also redefined production style for underground hip-hop. And while all this benchmark-setting was going on, they created one of the greatest hip-hop albums (if not THE greatest) of all time.
Best Tracks: Bring Da Ruckus, Da Mystery of Chessboxin’, Protect Ya Neck, 7th Chamber