After four years, one potentially GOAT group album, five stone cold classic solo albums and another as part of a rap supergroup, and appearances across the rap universe, it was time for the members of the Wu-Tang Clan to come back together like Voltron and record the follow up to their masterwork. It was a highly anticipated album, released in 1997 towards the beginning of the double album craze in hip hop, even coming on an enhanced CD that offered a tour of the Wu Mansion. But if there was anyone who deserved one and could make it work, it was a group that counted nine members, ten if you count Cappadonna, along with all those affiliates they had been collecting. 36 Chambers may have benefited by being lean, but it also meant Masta Killa and U-God combined for only three verses and there just wasn’t much room for the rest of the members to work.
If you are trying to justify your two hour double album though, don’t start it off with Popa Wu rambling about Five Percenter teachings on “Wu-Revolution” while Ol Dirty’s Uncle Pete occasionally shows up to sing for the better part of seven minutes with not a single member of the Wu-Tang Clan in sight. At least we get some Blue Raspberry faintly singing in the background (last seen on “Release Yo Delf” and “Rainy Dayz“). Thankfully the second song is one of the best songs they have ever done in “Reunited“. RZA had been moving to a more cinematic style ever since Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and the strings alone here are just wonderful, performed by Mari Ben-Ari who would later win a Grammy for co-writing “Jesus Walks“, not coincidentally, Kanye West (and Just Blaze) being heavily influenced by the RZA’s production style especially on the techniques he popularized starting here. The honor of first verse is this time given to GZA, but it’s ODB who comes in and tears it up with a vicious set and RZA who takes it in a more technical direction that are the stars here before Method Man closes it out, Ms. Roxy acting as both the sonic voice throughout and hype woman for the crew. Speaking of Kanye, “For Heaven’s Sake“, sees RZA sample King Floyd’s “Don’t Leave Me Lonely“, speed up the sample, and consequentially invent chipmunk soul. That’s not to take away from the work that Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, and to a lesser extent Cappadonna do on the track to keep the album going strong, but the distinctive (for the time) style helps.
“Cash Still Rules / Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But The Money)” hearkens back to Wu’s most enduring hit returning Raekwon and Method Man (who is now given a verse), but replaces that songs highlight (Deck) with Ghostface and the result is a mediocre street tale track that suffers in comparison to the original. It’s also the first track on the album produced by 4th Disciple and is the first sign of what is going to ultimately undo the Wu-Tang Clan, as this album is where the RZA started to ease up on the reigns, letting go more completely after its release, and handing over producing duties on numerous songs including “Visionz“. Produced by Inspectah Deck and featuring verses from Meth, Rae, Masta Killa, the Rebel INS himself, and Ghost, it uses an ultra-simplistic breakbeat to layer a catchier beat over and lets all five deliver strongly. “As High As Wu-Tang Get” starts with a gun shot and for a long while in college, was my wake-up song in the morning. GZA and Meth get verses while Dirt gets to flash some of his style in the intro and choruses, a role he is perfect for, but also one he was forced into increasingly because of all his many, many legal issues.
“Severe Punishment” is, seven songs in, the first appearance of U-God and that’s about all that’s notable about it. “Older Gods” starts out similarly, another Ghost-Rae-4th Disciple collaboration that’s good if unmemorable, but GZA takes his trademark closing spot and finishes strong. “Maria” is fun for the weirdness of ODB who gets two verses and the intro and RZA, less so for Cappadonna’s verse and its views on women. Thankfully, 4th Disciple’s “A Better Tomorrow” (while a reference to the John Woo film, it would also become a Wu album name of its own eventually), is better in all ways. Letting Deck launch it off, it’s a far more poignant song than anything that had come before on this album and that’s even before U-God brings up the time someone used his two-year-old as a human shield. Heading in the opposite direction is “It’s Yourz” (oddly the video version uses a very obviously different Ghostface verse because the band just can’t make normal videos) which I’ll be honest, even as the second single and a notable song, I just am not a huge fan of. It’s stadium rap that fails to engage and closes out the first disc as a parallel to “Reunited” in theme if not quality.
The second disc starts much as the first disc does with an intro, but this time it is the RZA (with an assist from the Genius) and it is also wisely over in two minutes making it perfectly fine in my book (if skippable). It leads right into Wu-Tang Forever‘s lead single and defining track. A nearly six-minute epic featuring all ten members (including Cappadonna), no chorus, no hook, and an expensive Brett Ratner directed, early CGI-filled video that leans into that killer bees imagery (a Wu-Tang staple). “Triumph” starts with ODB’s only contribution (aside from a quick interlude) in a quotable, rambling intro before setting up Inspectah Deck’s verse, one of the greatest in rap history and the defining moment of his career as he delivers each line with such precision and flow. It’s perfect. That’s not to say the rest of the track isn’t great because it is with GZA and Masta Killa especially standing out, and as a whole it stands out as one of the best of the Clan’s large posse cuts with an argument to be made my others that it is the best.
You can’t find a greater mood whiplash though than the one that moves from “Triumph” to “Impossible“, a song that readers of my last spotlight may remember for when I listed all three verses as among the best of the rappers involved. It’s a deeply moving song that brings chills down my spine and underrated (if not forgotten for one reason). RZA’s verse combines the best of his Five Percenter and philosophical musings about crime rates and his emphasis on a multisyllabic flow while U-God, likewise gets in some pretty deep lines for him as well as more space than he was usually afforded. It’s Ghostface’s verse though that rightly is the one that is remembered, the one called the Verse of the Year by The Source, the one that RZA calls the greatest Wu-Tang verse, and Ghost’s favorite of his own. It’s the moving, panic-y, tense story of Ghost being there at the final moments of his friend who was shot and killed. The singer Tekitha’s soaring, operatic chorus ties the whole song together beautifully and makes one misty eyed. Rae comes in at the end to give the moral of the story and when they talk about Wu-Tang Forever being more cinematic, this is the first track to point them to and a Beethoven sampling 4th Disciple production at that (though RZA is listed as co-producer).
“Little Ghetto Boys” feels like a track straight off OB4CL for better or worse complete with Rae and Cappadonna. “Deadly Melody” is the second large posse cut of this disc, but it does some things that none of the other similar cuts had done by featuring multiple, non-consecutive verses by a couple of the rappers and by having a bunch of the rappers (including GZA who doesn’t even get his own verse) share a verse in the middle). Too bad that Masta Killa, U-God, RZA, Meth, Streetlife, and Ghostface can’t do anything to make this song memorable at all. 4th Disciple’s final contribution is “The City“, a solo Inspectah Deck track, with a downright unsettling backing beat (and Stevie Wonder interpolation) that squeals along and haunts over you. “The Projects” is a fine track, but suffers in comparison to the previous song by being too similar in sound, but just overall less interesting with another collaboration between Rae and Ghost (with Meth handling the verse in between).
“Bells of War” is a more leisurely song that is at its best when U-God, Meth, RZA, Masta, Killa, and Ghost are rapping and not when it gets lost in a grainy interlude where Raekwon talks about boxing or when the RZA spends over the minute or so talking about among other things how he recommends Wu-Tang for the children. That boxing talk does have one point though, and that’s to set up the first of two tracks from True Master, “The M.G.M.“. Yet another Ghostface and Raekwon collaboration, it is stylized like a boxing match with the two trading lines telling about the 1993 in Julio Cesar Chavez and Pernell Whitaker at MGM (it was actually held in the Alamodome), and it’s a quick, fun, if gimmicky song. If you thought Wu-Tang Forever was lacking in songs about defecation on women and another song about hoes, well let me introduce you to the dirtiest thing in sight, it’s Dirt Dog’s notorious solo track “Dog Shit“. Granted there are appearances from RZA and Meth and a terrible skit at the end, but like “Maria”, it treds a thin line between amusing comic relief with a crazed shouted hook and just embarrassing and it depends on my mood where they fall. “Duck Seazon” is pretty tedious with neither Rae (on either verse) or RZA at their best and Meth is fully into that point where he (by his own admission) just isn’t giving it his all anymore.
“Hellz Wind Staff” may have had to steal its name from a superior track off Liquid Swords (albeit one of the weaker ones), but it’s still a very good track working in verses from Streetlife as well as Ghost, Deck, Meth, RZA, and Rae with the kung fu samples throughout hearkening back to earlier RZA productions. The album as a whole features far less samples than any of his previous works. While 36 Chambers would layer countless samples over each other to create a very dense production, Wu-Tang Forever is far more synthesizer focused, a number of tracks featuring none or only a quick sample. The final posse cut is True Master’s second contribution and it’s the epic feeling “Heaterz” beat. Of course, that beat has a way of overwhelming the actual contributions by Raekwon, INS, Dirt McGirt (well his four lines anyway), U-God, and Cappadonna, but it’s a fantastic conclusion to the album. *Checks notes* Oh yeah, they didn’t just end the album with “Heaterz” for reasons that I do not understand at all.
I like U-God. He gets a lot of crap, but he’s had so many great verses and in most any other rap group he would shine. It’s just that he happened to be in one that is so insanely overloaded in talent. That being said, “Black Shampoo” has no right being on the album. I love that they gave him a solo track, love that they tried to mix things up, but it doesn’t work at all from that terrible Casio beat to his awkward attempt at a 70s style seduction song. I really like Tekitha too, but there’s no reason “Second Coming” needed to be a reworking of fucking “MacArthur Park” as a track implying Wu-Tang is the second coming. She does her best with it, but it just continues to add to the bloat here and isn’t a good song despite her fantastic voice. Finally, we get Raekwon rambling for two and a half minutes on “The Closing” as a less coherent version of the intro.
The international version adds two more tracks in “Sunshower” and “Projects” (International Remix). The former is a six-minute-long RZA solo track that is a good, deep track, but also indulgent and the last thing this album needed was more bloat. It would have been perfect if saved for a RZA solo album. The “Projects” remix is ruined by an absolutely terrible beat which makes it nigh-unlistenable. Since single disc versions of double albums are a hobby of a lot of people, I thought I’d throw my inexperienced (I can count on two hands the number of mixtapes I’ve made for others and they were not expertly crafted) hat into the ring with a version of my own. If you want the “cassette” version, Side One ends with “The M.G.M.”.
Wu-Tang Forever is bloated to be sure, but it is yet another classic album. It delivered on the years of promise and more than anything, it was the kingmaker album for the Wu-Tang Clan. It hit number one on the Billboard 200, went quadruple platinum in a span of months (thanks to the quirk of double albums counting as two album sales) when it took years for 36 Chambers to sell as many copies as it did, and immortalized the group forever. It led to the moment where ODB correctly rushed the stage at the Grammys after they gave Puffy’s Biggie death capitalizing album a win over Wu-Tang Forever to announce to the world that “Wu-Tang is for the children”, a common refrain from him. The album also led to their downfall as the RZA backed off (burnt out by five years of producing, rapping, and starting an empire) and a flood of solo albums came out, most without his sterling guiding hand and production work. Not only would these all be a lesser quality than the masterpiece after masterpiece that came before, they diluted the Wu brand and quickly made the quantity into something of a joke.
Tune in three weeks from today as we start to dive into the next batch of solo (and solo-ish) albums 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.