The Second Batch of Solo Albums
Between 1994 and 1996, Wu-Tang members were involved in six albums, with only three albums coming from Wu-Tang affiliates (not including Gravediggaz who I counted toward the six). After another Gravediggaz release in 1997 (along with one from affiliate Killarmy), between 1998 and 2000, Wu-Tang members were involved in twelve albums (including another group album) and at least twenty-five(!) albums from Wu-Tang affiliates. Wu-Tang had become too big of a brand not to exploit, but it also lost any sort of quality control.
That Gravediggaz album, The Pick, the Sickle and the Shovel, saw original group instigator and primary producer Prince Paul take a step back from the group (credited only on the “Outro“) and in his place is a Frankenstein’s monster of producers. Eight are credited on fifteen tracks including every member of the group and a bunch of Wu-Tang affiliates including 4th Disciple and True Master. It’s very apparent in the sound as the Wu-Tang style has become far more apparent this time out, sometimes more egregiously than others as the horrorcore hasn’t disappeared, just merely subsumed and less of a focus this time around. Also gone is the basic style that saw each of the three rappers perform on all but one track as RZA disappears for long portions of the album as a rapper. He would ultimately leave the group after this album with Too Poetic and Frukwan releasing Nightmare in A-Minor after Poetic’s untimely death from colon cancer in 2001. Their final album as some semblance of a full group is solid if nothing special. It does feature the first ever recording from Kelis on “Fairytalez” and if nothing else, “The Night the Earth Cried” is worthy of a listen.
I’ve hemmed and hawed about how to classify and where to talk about Cappadonna. I’ve mentioned before that RZA now counts him as a member of the Wu-Tang Clan dating back to the 8 Diagrams era, so do I talk about his 1998 album The Pillage here or later when I discuss the affiliates which he was when he originally made it? Principally produced by True Master and RZA and feeling like a stylistic followup to Wu-Tang Forever with its synth heavy, cinematic style. It’s a fine little album but even at just under an hour, it starts to get tedious after a while and is frontloaded in quality. It produced two singles in “Slang Editorial” and “Run” with the latter produced by RZA and far better. I just am not a huge fan of his style which comes across as a weaker version of Ghostface and certainly none of his storytelling chops.
There’s appearances by U-God (who delivers the album highlight on “Supa Ninjaz“), Meth, Ghostface, and Raekwon as well as affiliates including Blue Raspberry and Tekitha, but Cappa is front and center here. Speaking of, I am not going to talk much about the bad Wu-Tang covers because so many of them are terrible (just wait and see), but The Pillage‘s deserves special note because it never fails to make me chuckle. He just looks so sad, like RZA had just told him that even with Ol’ Dirty locked up, he still wouldn’t let him start on the Wu-Tang Killa Beez baseball team. Don’t worry buddy, your album managed to get to #3 on the charts and be certified Gold.
As with the first batch of solo albums, it fell to Method Man to be the first of the Wu-Tang Clan to make a proper solo album post-group album. Tical may not have been the highlight of the first batch, but Method Man was still the breakout star of the crew and he was still following up a classic album with big expectations for the sequel. At twenty-eight tracks, Tical 2000: Judgement Day looks like a behemoth on the surface (the US version of Wu-Tang Forever only had twenty-seven), that size is a dirty lie. Eleven fucking skits counting the intro. And no, none of these approach the quality of the “Torture Skit” (which even gets called out in it’s own track, “Torture“), “Shaolin What” being the only one that even tries (it can barely be called a skit and not just another song) though I appreciated Chris Rock making fun of Meth’s name on “You Play Too Much” as a one time listen and he’s better served than Ed Lover or Janet Jackson. Also Donald Trump shows up on “Donald Trump” thanks to fellow shitbag Russell Simmons to encourage Meth to release his album and bring down my mood.
It also features only three tracks produced by RZA (and one co-production), replacing him with a mishmash of producers headed up by True Master but including Inspectah Deck, 4th Disciple, Meth himself on the album’s one single, the twinkly, mediocre “Judgement Day” (whose video shows off the album’s apocalyptic theme for the then future year of 2000), EPMD’s Erick Sermon, Mobb Deep’s Havoc, and Qu’ran Goodman and hit makers Trackmasters on the insanely catchy “Break Ups 2 Make Up“. “Break Ups 2 Make Up” with a smooth as silk D’Angelo singing the chorus and inserting his random interjections throughout (and features a cameo from a very young 50 Cent in the video) doesn’t feel like it fits in with the album and acts more as the token R&B crossover track, but it is also the one that I return to the most on its own.
The appearances here though continue with Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Raekwon, affiliates Killa Sin, Hell Razah, and Streetlife who shows up on six tracks and a skit, along with TLC’s Left Eye, Mobb Deep, and Meth’s best buddy Redman. That last collaboration on “Big Dogs” is an obvious highlight, the two feeding off each others’ energy and making for a fun combination and we’ll get back to them in a bit. The rest of the guests do fine, Streetlife appearing on another album standout in “Dangerous Grounds“, but mostly they just feel like Meth showing off how many famous people he knows. “Retro Godfather” is also one to check out with that funky backing beat and one of RZA’s few contributions. It may have gotten a bit of a mixed reputation despite going platinum and hitting number one on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and number two on the Billboard 200, but hacking out the fluff and you’re left with a good if definitively lesser follow up.
Meth was unsurprisingly everywhere in this period dropping in for features, often as the best part of the song. I won’t even get into his most frequent collaborator (yet), but even discounting his appearances on other Wu-Tang member and affiliate tracks, it’s a lot to parse through. The best are his appearances with Mobb Deep, Pete Rock, and Funkmaster Flex, but its not an impressive collection of quality. Also of note is the minor hit “Grande Finale” from the Belly soundtrack and his first collaboration with the Limp Bizkit which is unsurprisingly not great (though it opts more for straight rap than nu metal). In non-music related activities, he also started his prolific side acting career with a small roles in the silly 187, solid Cop Land, Belly, and as himself in Black & White.
While the RZA has always been the leader of the group, the focus has always been on his production skills. As a rapper he can be an acquired taste and admittedly uneven. He may have already had two spinoff albums as a part of Gravediggaz, but yet he had never had a solo album to this point despite his position in the group. In typical RZA fashion though, he didn’t just do cut a simple solo album, he smoked a bunch of good weed, adopted another new strange persona of Bobby Digital (from his name Bobby Diggs), and set up a bunch of keyboards as a “digital orchestra”. That RZA did most of the production for Bobby Digital in Stereo himself makes this a bit of a rarity itself in this period, but it also gives the album a nice sense of flow even as it gets far more experimental and mixes in a variety of tones. Only three tracks had outside production with two handled by King Tech and the great distorted Portishead sampling “Kiss of a Black Widow” by Inspectah Deck
The chosen representatives from the Clan this time out are Method Man, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty, and U-God with loads of affiliates including Tekitha, Ms. Roxy, and most of Killarmy as well as appearances by Ras Kass on “Handwriting on the Wall” and The Force M.D.s “My Lovin’ is Digi” rounding out the cast. Yet despite all the people on the record, RZA’s rapping is still front and center which isn’t going to win any new converts here. “Holocaust (Silkworm)“, particularly that opening verse from little known affiliate Holocaust (of Black Knights), is especially strong on the album and as probably the most traditional Wu track, probably the best entry point besides just listening to it straight through. The production is filled with bizarre choices like that electronic almost chirping beat on “Mantis” (plus you get to hear Tekitha rap the chorus) or the distracting noises in the background of “N.Y.C. Everything” that threaten to derail otherwise well done songs. “Lab Drunk” is a crazy mess with RZA practically having to shout over the pile up going on in the background, but it just really clicked with me. It continues the streak of being not especially tight in terms of records, but it’s a compelling one that might not always succeed or hit as high of highs as the other albums thus far, but it is a unique specimen and a worthwhile listen.
While RZA didn’t produce nearly as much during this period, he did make the jump to film scoring with Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch pretty good reimagining of the fantastic Le Samouraï. The score worked well with the film and on its own (which was only released in Japan) it’s interesting, but unlikely to be anything I fire up too often on its own even with a couple proper Wu-Tang tracks on it. I’ll get to the soundtrack when I discuss the affiliates. It wasn’t the only soundtrack he did in this period though as as he contributed the soundtrack for the video game Wu Tang: Shaolin Style. A crappy looking fighting game (I’m not buying a PS1 just for this feature since my PS3 that did backwards compatibility died although I wish I could shell out for that controller below), half the soundtrack featured contributions by various Wu-Tang members (and Tekitha), with the rest being instrumentals by RZA.
It also features them as the playable characters if you ever wanted to truly bring the ruckus. The only other options you would have had for that would be the Dej Jam games where you could play as Ghostface and Meth, DJ Hero 2 where you could play as the RZA. RZA’s main contribution, “Wu World Order” is quality, but the couple of instrumentals I could track down are pretty forgettable. RZA also did a mediocre track for the Bulworth soundtrack, a much better one in “Tragedy” off the Rhyme and Reason soundtrack, covered Run DMC’s “Sucker MCs” with Meth and ODB, showed up on System of a Down’s cover of their own “Shame“, collaborated with AZ and Rass Kass, and popped up on “The Anthem” using a recycled verse from Bobby Digital.
If living up to 6 Feet Deep or Tical seemed like a lot, living up to Liquid Swords was going to be something else entirely. It is arguably the best of the Wu-Tang solo albums (certainly my favorite) and even beyond that, it is an all-time classic rap album in its own right. It may not have the critical pressure of Wu-Tang Forever, but it may have been even be trickier task. Beneath the Surface starts off on a shaky footing by replacing one of the best elements, RZA’s heavy involvement (the most in any of the solo albums), with Mathematics (who’s involvement in production had been scattered to this point) and Arabian Knight being the primary producers. RZA produces a single track, the same as INS and John the Baptist (no, not that one). The production is the main thing holding the album back as GZA’s rapping is still just as skillful as ever.
The only Clan members to make an appearance here are ODB, RZA, Masta Killa, and Meth, but the album is bolstered with a number of affiliates. Killah Priest, who broke out big on Liquid Swords with “B.I.B.L.E.” gets three features along with appearances by fellow members of Sunz of Man, Hell Razah and Prodigal Sunn. Royal Fam’s Dreddy Krueger and Timbo King also show up along with La the Darkman and couple even more obscure artists. The title track feature the first credit for Santigold, though it is not clear if she contributes anything more than just a writing credit since that is Res in the sample. It’s probably the most interesting track on the album though none stand out as especially bad. The problem is the reverse also isn’t true and few stand out as great, “Publicity” maybe though I do rather like ODB’s hook on “Crash Your Crew“.
BTS also adds four skits plus an intro and outro which may not sound like much compared to Tical 2000, but they are nowhere near the quality of its predecessor and far too heavy-handed. Three of the four are essentially PSAs which may be an admirable idea, but that doesn’t make them any less skippable. It was going to be impossible to live up to Liquid Swords and Beneath the Surface doesn’t come close, but it is a skillfully performed and a quality listen if largely unmemorable installment.
This time out, GZA does have a couple of appearances on a Killah Priest track with Inspectah Deck from the soundtrack to Caught Up, a couple DJ Muggs tracks as part of the Soul Assassins project, the final leg of a six-man Wu-Tang posse cut for Funkmaster Flex, classing up a song by some goofy rapper named Afu-Ra, and finally “Ich Lebe Für Hip Hop“, a German rap song from a Polish producer that he shows up on alongside Prodigal Sunn (who both rap in English, but still), but he’s still far from prolific when it comes to support.
Method Man might be the mainstream star, but the ODB was something else entirely. He was a mythic figure. He could do anything from pick up his welfare check in a limo, show up on Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy”, rush the stage at the Grammy’s, help save a kid anonymously and visit him regularly in the hospital, or conduct rambling shoeless interviews. Sadly, he was more than just that though and more than the rest of the group (who’s had their share to be sure) was dogged by countless legal issues starting with second degree assault and continuing with failure to pay child support, attempted assault (of his girlfriend), shoplifting, and arrests for criminal threatening, attempted murder, criminal weapon possession, driving without a license, wearing a bulletproof vest as a convicted felon, possession of crack cocaine, possession of marijuana, and traffic offenses. He was shot multiple times over the years and shot at by the cops who were scared by his cell phone, something cops would never do today. He escaped a rehab facility and spent a month as a fugitive show up at a record release party to perform a single verse for an album we will get to in a bit before taking off before he was arrested at a Philadelphia McDonalds (at 29th and Grays Ferry though I can’t say I’ve ever been to it despite the attempt to make it a historical landmark). He was also eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, adding an extra layer of tragic and likely contributing alongside the heavy drug use to the very obvious changes in his personalities over his life.
His first album stood up alongside all the first generation solo titles despite and because of its messiness and Dirt Dog’s unique presence. It’s a shame though that we only got proper two albums, with 1999’s N***a Please serving as his final major contribution. In keeping with RZA’s reduced presence post Forever, he only produces three tracks (and co-produces a fourth), new producers take over, but unlike most of the other projects, the Big Baby Jesus went outside of the Wu Family for most of that production work with The Neptunes handling three and Irv Gotti involved in another three. The Neptunes contributions are easily the most notable starting with “Recognize“, the lead off track, one of best songs on the album as well as Dirt’s own opportunity to trot out Chris Rock on his album. Their cover of Rick James’s “Cold Blooded” is intriguing if not a complete success, but “Got Your Money” is perhaps his best solo showcase of his abilities. Besides having the best Wu-Tang video, pulling liberally from Dolemite clips aided by some awful effects but serving as a great distillation of his sense of humor and self-deprecation, it is extremely catchy, channels his weirdness without restraining it, and yet makes it fit naturally into a mainstream song complete with chorus from Kelis. For what it does, it is the best song in the Wu-Tang catalog and one that worm your way into your ear for days.
It’s just a shame the rest of the album is such a mess and not in the good Return to the 36 Chambers kind of way that simultaneously made it felt like a structured mess. The album is even more top heavy in quality than The Pillage. After the first four songs (the three Neptunes tracks and the wonderfully gritty and unhinged “I Can’t Wait“), the album starts to come apart at the seams as Dirt McGirt gets more and more unhinged. He doesn’t even appear on “Gettin’ High” which is essentially a Brooklyn Zu (Shorty Shitstain included) posse cut with La the Darkman added in (and “B.I.B.L.E.” it is not). You do get to listen to him sing a duet cover of Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache” with Lil’ Mo which is something, but at a certain point it starts to just feel less like a rap album and more like this album is a comedy concept piece. Not a single Wu member delivers a verse and it could have probably helped provide some structure. There’s moments of inspiration along the way, but for the most part, the album is a frustrating listen.
Unlike GZA, Ol’ Dirty and his recognizable style were everywhere though. Handling about half of a Wu-Tang posse cut by himself for the Rush Hour soundtrack? Odd choice, but ok! Appearing on a remix of a Blackstreet song with Slash and Fishbone? Sure can! Appearing on a South Park soundtrack album with The Crystal Method, Ozzy Osbourne, DMX, and Fuzzbubble? Why not! Take $30K from ICP and just spend two days rambling about bitches? We can still use it! WWF themes? Check! Crappy Cam’ron music? Also yes! While I’m going to highlight this track from the Alkaholiks first because it is great, there was another odd collaboration that was Dirt’s biggest success of the period. From the Bulworth soundtrack we have a track nominally from Fugees also-ran Pras, but in reality it was stolen by ODB and newcomer Mýa. “Ghetto Supastar” dwarfed the popularity of the movie it was meant to promote (a decent if cringey one) and is a fantastic, catchy crossover track. Was then, still is now.
Tune in three weeks from today as we finish up this 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.