Artist Spotlight: Wu-Tang Clan (Part 2 – The First Batch of Solo Albums)

Part 1 – Enter the Wu-Tang

Return to the 36 Chambers.jpg

We looked at the Wu-Tang Clan’s first solo album last time which came from the most obvious candidate in Method Man, but the big question was “Who would come next?”.  If there was one other artist who stood out as a unique force on that first album, it was the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the man of countless nicknames even compared to everyone else in this group.  There is truly no one else like him, not then or since, and his first solo album, 1995’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, was as wild and unpredictable as he was.  It was crazy, vulgar as hell, funny, and lacking any sort of cohesion.  Rambling (it literally opens with over four minutes of him rambling), unwieldy, and recorded over a few years, it’s hard to explain exactly why it all works so well and yet it does.  “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is probably the most refined he gets and yet even it is all over the place and filled with strange vocalizations and a chorus expressing Dirt’s preference for not wearing condoms.  The video for it (continuing the occasional if strange habit of combining the song with another, here with “Baby C’mon”) really displaying his crazy side that made him so endearing.  His other hit of “Brooklyn Zoo” repurposes part of a line from his own verse on “Protect Ya Neck” and just features him yelling it repeatedly as the chorus.  The album shouldn’t work and yet thanks to RZA’s production and Dirt McGirt’s energy and rap/sung style it does.

The ratio is still over 50% solo tracks, but just barely with appearances by the Wu-Tang crew in Raekwon, Method Man (both on album highlight “Raw Hide”), GZA, RZA, Masta Killa, and Ghostface as well as a number of appearances by Killah Priest and other affiliates.  It also saw the debuts of RZA disciples True Master who co-produced “Brooklyn Zoo” with ODB and 4th Disciple (not counting two tracks he co-produced with RZA for rapper N-Tyce) who co-produced another three tracks with him.  Dirt Dog also introduces the world to the most terrible named affiliate ever, a member of his Brooklyn Zu outfit, Shorty Shitstain.  A man whose only consolation in life is that he’s not known as the Wu-Tang affiliate who cut his pecker off.  Finally, there is that fantastic cover (the best Wu Tang cover at that) which you can credit ODB himself for and depicts his actual welfare card with strategic alterations.  Then he went into legend (even if he ultimately brought way too much negative attention on the program) by picking up his welfare check in a limo.

He was a character.  He also spent this intermediate period by being the highlight on a track featuring Big Daddy Kane, Shyheim, and a pre-fame Jay-Z, which is no mean feat, appearing with Busta Rhymes because the world demanded the two crazy, crazy talented rappers with not dissimilar approaches to hair appear together, recording a song for the Hoodlum soundtrack that essentially posits himself as a stylistic descendant of Cab Calloway, recording a song with Method Man for The Jerky Boys soundtrack, and his most lasting contribution with Mariah Carey.  I still have no clue how it happened years later, but the remix of “Fantasy” launched a trend of rap/r&b collaborations that would help define the genre in the mainstream in the late 90’s and it’s all thanks to ODB (okay, it’s largely Mariah who is responsible/to blame for the song’s success).

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With three members having delivered classic albums including two solo, it next fell on Raekwon to continue that streak and I’ll be honest, for a long time, despite the reputation this album had, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… never clicked with me.  For a start, it revived and defined the mafioso subgenre, one I found ridiculous and never much got into.  Even beyond the countless interchangeable rappers who named themselves after mobsters, it was where Nas (who becomes the first non-Wu Tang affiliate to drop a verse on a Wu-Tang album and makes it count on “Verbal Intercourse“) restyled his career for the worse.  It also heavily influenced such names as Tupac, Biggie, and Jay-Z, the former two restyling themselves towards the ends of their careers while Jay-Z did so right before breaking out.  It’s why Cristal is a thing in rap and established countless imitators even within the group itself.

Purple Tape

via Multihop.TV

But I’ve regularly returned to it and over time, the Purple Tape, so named for the distinctive packaging of the cassette, has grown on me.  The loose overarching story with Raekwon taking on the persona of Lou Diamond (no relation to Phillips) and Ghostface taking on that of Tony Starks (as in Iron Man) can be evocative of 36 Chambers at its best (continuing their chemistry on “Can It All Be So Simple” which gets a remix here), but frequently  just tries my patience even when it isn’t sampling the crappy Scarface remake.  The pattern of decreasing solo tracks continues with only five of the seventeen being solo tracks and Ghostface appearing on all twelve of the other tracks.  U-God, Inspectah Deck, GZA, RZA, and Method Man all make appearances, but the most notable introduction here is Cappadonna who was kept out of the initial lineup by a stint in prison and who would over the years act as a fringe unofficial 10th member until around the 8 Diagrams era when he became an official member (though there are still holdouts).  His verse on “Ice Cream” is fine but I will never get the hype around him.

It’s the standout tracks here that make OB4CL work for me. “Criminology” is a Ghostface coming out party that lets him spit some of his best stuff over a great RZA beat.  “Rainy Dayz” offers another opportunity for Blue Raspberry to show off her pipes while Ghost and Rae tell evocative stories that bring out the best in them.  “Guillotine (Swordz)” is classic Wu and feels like a track straight off 36 Chambers complete with an awesome lead off by the Rebel INS (Inspectah Deck) and killer closer by GZA.  “Glaciers of Ice” has a rare early Masta Killa verse and it is unsurprisingly great, while “Wu-Gambinos” lets RZA go crazy and is probably the best justification for the whole mafia theme as it emphasizes the family nature of the Clan.  Of course, there’s also the aforementioned lead single “Ice Cream” which is a great song overall, Meth’s insanely catchy chorus comparing women’s skin tones to ice cream flavors with associated women’s t-shirts which were actually sold for a time.  We’ll get to Rae’s biggest contributions as a guest artist in this period in a bit, but he also appeared on a trio of quality Mobb Deep songs and a decent pair of songs with Fat Joe (the latter with Big Pun and Armageddon as well).

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The second of the twin pillars of the Wu-Tang solo catalog is the one I’ve always preferred and it’s also the only solo album they have made that can stand right beside 36 Chambers in quality.  I’ll admit, it’s also achieved a sort of reputation as more of a favorite of white rap fans, one this Spotlight post is only affirming, but GZA’s Liquid Swords has from my first listen been a top to bottom masterpiece.

GZA, as indicated by his earlier moniker of The Genius, was always the intellectual head of the Wu-Tang Clan (long before he was getting credit for the second largest vocabulary in hip-hopgiving financial adviceTED talks, or lecturing at Harvard, MIT, and more) and the album consequentially reflects it with the references to chess and philosophy.  Those chess metaphors are represented first and foremost on the iconic comic-book style album cover.  His lyricism was unmatched in the group especially in its intricacies.  The album heavily samples Shogun Assassin, a reedited and dubbed cut of the fantastic first two Lone Wolf and Cub films (Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx though they are all awesome) throughout which like OB4CL creates a sort of overarching narrative (about a ronin who has been betrayed and his young child) and mood even if they aren’t reflected in the songs themselves.  Combined with all the martial arts film samples, it’s probably the peak of the RZA’s skill (who produced all but the final track) at weaving his and the rest of the group’s fascination with the East in with the tales of inner city life.  The production has a wonderful haunting, ethereal quality to it that perfectly matches the Genius’ style.

The titular opening track is just pure GZA showing off with some of his best material and there’s just no more perfect intro to a Wu-Tang album.   While “Liquid Swords” featured RZA in the choruses, “Duel of the Iron Mic” is the first to feature verses from other Wu-Tang members and as a whole, on Liquid Swords seven of the first twelve tracks only feature verses from GZA (though every other member shows up at some point).  Masta Killa, who learned to rap from and consequentially most resembles GZA, and Inspectah Deck deliver killer verses while ODB delightfully drops in to yell the hook.  “Living in the World Today” and “Cold War” are a pair of downright classic songs with a social bent, the latter in particular aided by an evocative Deck verse and a hook from an otherwise unknown cousin of GZA’s, Life.  Sandwiched between them is “Gold“, one of the hardest hitting tracks on the album and providing a nice contrast to the more serious street themes.  “Labels” is a quick and dirty little sequel to his “Protect Ya Neck” verse while “4th Chamber” features verses from Ghost and Killah Priest as well as RZA showing up in the middle and absolutely killing it.

While it’s hard to pick a favorite off the album, it’s hard to deny the appeal of “Shadowboxin’” and Method Man’s two verses which slowed his usual up-tempo style into something much more methodical and smooth.  “Hell’s Wind Staff / Killah Hills 10304” is GZA’s lyrical attempt at a Mafioso style while “Investigative Reports” is a solid second posse cut that brings in U-God, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah and evokes the earlier social songs on the album.  “Swordsman” goes for quiet philosophical musings drawing from the Five Percenter teachings, while “I Gotcha Back” finishes up with one last classic take on inner city violence.  That leaves only one track, a CD bonus track which neither RZA or GZA are involved in.  “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)” is instead performed by Killah Priest and produced by 4th Disciple and threatens to run away with the entire album as it covers a wide variety of topics (I’ll admit that some make me rather uncomfortable such as his anti-choice stance) on his spiritual journey.  It’s a beautiful, perfect album closer.

The GZA doesn’t actually have any guest appearance here (though he did rep the Wu on the final episode of The Arsenio Hall Show), but we did almost have a fourth 1995 album to slot in here.  Inspectah Deck had gotten a reputation for his skill on a number of verses already, but his big solo break was not to be as a flood in the RZA’s studio destroyed all the work he had done on that album and permanently denied us a RZA produced INS joint.  It’s one of the great tragedies of rap music and in truth, it’s probably the main reason he isn’t a bigger name as there is a steep jump in name recognition and notability for the artists who released solo works (or in the case of the RZA masterminded it all) in that golden age.  All you’re going to get in this period is his solo track “Let Me at Them” from the Tales from the Hood soundtrack which he produced and a collaboration with U-God and Streetlife for the High School High soundtrack.

1996 saw the release of only one album as the first batch of solo albums came to a close, and it tends to be the one that slides the most under the radar.  Ghostface wasn’t a standout member of the group early on, but it’s fitting that he got the last spot as his solo albums would later earn the reputation as the most reliable Wu solo output, staying relevant long after many of the others faded away.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Ironman acts as a sort of counterpart to OB4CL in it returns the Ghostface and Raekwon primary collaboration of that album.  This time out, “Ice Water”/”Ice Cream” collaborator Cappadonna has been upgraded to featuring status alongside Rae and the mafioso themes have been replaced by blaxploitation ones.  The title really has no reference aside from to Ghost’s alter ego of Tony Starks (and yes, he did nearly get a cameo in Iron Man and does get his video for “We Celebrate” into the background of it), and while Marvel never went after him for appropriating the name, it has over samples on later albums.  This album wasn’t immune to that issue though as “The Soul Controller” was removed from it in 2001 because they had not gotten the rights cleared.

Soul samples abound here and in general it is a more soulful album.  Even classic Philadelphia group The Delphonics make an appearance on “After the Smoke Is Clear“‘ to give it some extra bona fides.  Granted, you might not get that from the second track, “Wildflower“, where Ghostface goes completely off on a woman who cheated on him (still a great song), but for the most part, it really is.  The album is naturally filled with his storytelling style and tales of crime.  Once again, we have a highly collaborative album with thirteen of the seventeen tracks featuring Raekwon and five more featuring Cappadonna.  Ghost doesn’t even appear on two songs with Rae getting a solo track with “The Faster Blade” while “Assassination Day” is a posse cut featuring Inspectah Deck, RZA, Raekwon, and Masta Killa.

In terms of highlights, the first up is “Winter Warz“, with verses from Raekwon, U-God, and Masta Killa, but it is the final one by Cappadonna that it will be known for and it deserves its reputation.  Supposedly a freestyle, it’s a career-making and defining moment where for over two minutes he just goes absolutely nuts.  It sadly tends to overshadow the rest of the song though which is shame, because even without it, it would be an album highlight.  “Daytona 500” leads off with a killer Raekwon verse that shows off his technical skill and I don’t care how often “Nautilus” has been sampled, (never more iconically than on “Children’s Story“), but RZA makes it hit so hard here and gives it new life.  “Black Jesus” is a really underrated classic that appropriately features a fantastic verse from the underrated and knocked on U-God.  Mary J. Blige is brought on for a proper spot on a Wu-Tang album (instead of just the remix) for the lead single “All That I Got Is You“, a jarring tone shift, but a remarkably heartfelt and slow track of Ghost’s struggles growing up with Blige’s smooth vocals guiding the track along before Popa Wu get.  While it sounds like I am focusing on those away from Ghostface on these tracks, he is a reliable presence throughout, weaving in and out of each track.  My biggest problem with the album is that it just doesn’t flow as well from one song to the next as any of the previous ones, the transitions feeling halting and awkward.  It’s still a classic though and in a bit of Wu heresy I’ll even admit to preferring the general tone and core more than OB4CL.

His other contributions during this period that I still haven’t gotten to mostly amounted to a few remixes and a contribution to the The Great White Hype soundtrack.  That just leaves the perpetually overlooked U-God and Masta Killa.  From the former there’s this collaboration with Cappadonna also from The Great White Hype which he is the better on and this Cypress Hill song which… I like U-God’s verse at least but I have never been able to parse Cypress Hill or their appeal.  Masta Killa on the other hand, had nothing outside of his appearances on the Wu solo albums for me to spotlight, but here, a song from Cappadonna for completeness sake.

Tune in three weeks from today as we take a look at the next group album from the Wu-Tang Clan and in the following months, we will continue through the rest of their albums and the work of a select few of the countless Wu-Tang Clan affiliates.