Artist Spotlight: Wu-Tang Clan (Part 5 – The Rest of the Second Batch of Solo Albums)

Part 1 – Enter the Wu-Tang
Part 2 – The First Batch of Solo Albums
Part 3 – Wu-Tang Forever
Part 4 – The Second Batch of Solo Albums (Part 1)

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The success of “How High” in 1995 was the first of many collaborations for Method Man and Redman as they would appear together on tracks by Funkmaster Flex2Pac, LL Cool J (more famous now for the Canibus/LL drama), EPMD, and on each other’s solo albums.  It was only natural then that they would record an album together at some point and the result was 1999’s Blackout!.  It’s an album that learns from Tical 2000‘s mistakes as it keeps things under an hour, there’s only a single skit and it’s fine, and the guests are kept to a minimum.  LL Cool J and Ja Rule show up on “4 Seasons“, frequent collaborator and affiliate Streetlife and Ghost show up on “Run 4 Cover“, and there are appearances by Blue Raspberry (on the fantastic, creeping “Cereal Killer“), Mally G, and Young Zee but that’s it (Missy Elliott is unrecognizable and left in the background loop on “The ?“).  Production was principally handled by EPMD’s Erick Sermon though Redman contributes another four and RZA and Mathematics handle two each and it lends the whole album a more cohesive sound than a number of the others of this era.  Rockwilder’s sole production credit of the album “Da Rockwilder“, a tight, fun track that is the perfect distillation of the entire record.  The two just feed off each others’ energy and that drives the whole album.  It’s not a very deep album, but it is a fun one including tracks like “Blackout” and “Y.O.U.“.  The CD version also includes “Well All Rite Cha“, “Big Dogs“, and the original “How High” which were released elsewhere, but in the CD era, such duplication wasn’t a bad thing for people not looking to buy three CDs just for those songs.

The duo also spent the period appearing on Pharoahe Monch’s remix of “Simon Says” (remix of the slightly change the beat and make it a posse cut variety), “Rap Phenomenon” from the first of the Biggie posthumous releases, LL Cool J’s “Fuhgidabowdit“, and Ruff Ryders’ “2 Tears in a Bucket“.  None are very good though “Simon Says” mostly just suffers in comparison to the superior original despite the talented featured cast.  Also, there’s this shit which would later be featured on The Fast and the Furious soundtrack.  Stop enabling Limp Bizkit, Meth.

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As I detailed in the first part, Inspectah Deck was screwed by history as a flood in the RZA’s studio in 1995 destroyed all the work he had done on that album.  It took until four years later for Deck to get his album released, and when he did, it was the third Wu-Tang related album released in the span of less than a month.  As a result, Uncontrolled Substance was unable to launch Deck to the same level of fame as the members of the lineup who had released albums before him.  We were also denied a chance at a RZA produced INS album, only getting two collaborations from them here.  Instead, the production is handled by a variety of people, most prominently Deck himself who had been racking up the occasional credit leading up to this.  4th Disciple, Mathematics, True Master, and even Pete Rock (on “Trouble Man“) also contribute.

The two tracks we do get from produced from RZA, “Movas and Shakers” and “Friction” hint at something classic.  The former kicks off the album (after the album’s lone skit which effectively establishes the urban tone) right with the big horn heavy sample of Syl Johnson’s “Don’t Do It” while the latter is classic Wu-Tang with Deck and Masta Killa trading verses over top.  That’s not to say the rest of the album isn’t missed opportunity.  The best track actually comes from INS himself, “Hyperdermix” featuring some typically haunting production from him.  The album also features probably the shortest Wu posse cut to date in “9th Chamber“, but it’s the first distinctive of these cuts in a while featuring the “they really get around, don’t they” La the Darkman and Streetlife as well as Killarmy’s Beretta 9 and Killa Sin.  There’s an even split of solo tracks here with La the Darkman, Streetlife, and U-God (the only other Wu-Tang member beside Masta Killa to show up on the album) all making multiple appearances.

The rest of the album is just an excuse for Deck to spit bar after bar of greatness and I’m fine with that.  On a pure technical rapping side, this is one of the best Wu-Tang albums, as it’s just fun to hear him delivering his style.  The production, isn’t the most compelling but it does its job fine enough.  The lyricism encompasses a nice wide range from the typical for Wu joints five-percenter ideologies of something like “Show N Prove” to the more lady focused songs such as “Lovin’ You“.  Uncontrolled Substance doesn’t rise to the level of the generation one albums, but it is extremely underrated and worth a listen.  Deck deserved even better and there will always be that “what could have been”, but he still got an album that properly displayed his talents and that should be appreciated.

The Inspectah also spent this era popping up outside of the Wu Family on Big Pun’s “Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy)” (with Prodigy), Pete Rock’s “True Master” (with Kurupt) which is definitely worth checking out, I.G.T.’s “Make Cents“, and The Dwellas’s “Verbal Slaughter“.  Easily his biggest highlight though was showing up on Gang Starr’s classic “Above the Clouds” and he steps in half way through to deliver a fantastic verse and one of his best.  Also worth noting is “Shaolin Worldwide” with Meth and Streetlife from the Next Friday soundtrack and his appearance on the Wu-Tang posse cut (on some DJ named Tony Touch’s CD) “The Abduction” alongside GZA, RZA, Masta Killa, and Ghostface Killah.

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Poor U- God.  I’ve linked this before, but it bears linking again now that we have finally gotten to his debut solo album.  Circumstances (prison, it was prison) had kept him from being around for most of when 36 Chambers was recorded and even through Wu-Tang Forever, he hadn’t exactly established himself.  While the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan had developed their own distinct identities, some quicker than others, U-God was an exception to this, mostly being known as a utility player, “The Four Bar Killer”.  It was only a surprise that he was the second to last Wu-Tang member to get a solo album in so much that he got one before Masta Killa (which may have only been reflective of his experience rapping).  But U-God was a consistently reliable rapper, who aside from “Black Shampoo” (which certainly didn’t help his reputation in the eyes of fans who have generally regarded him as the worst member), was turning out great verses and would have stood out a lot more if he wasn’t surrounded by eight other all-world rappers and Cappadonna.

He’s hardly given the respect here of a top tier talent, the production talent peaking with two songs produced each by RZA, INS, and True Master and after that it is a mishmash of obscure names, a song from Blink (who would later work on The Blueprint), and two from DJ Homicide of Sugar Ray.  Unlike Uncontrollable Substance, that range of styles feels far less cohesive here and when he gets out of his rapping comfort zone, things do not go well.  U-God is almost entirely on his own here, supported only four appearances by someone name Leatha Face, two by Hell Razah, and one each by Inspectah Deck, Method Man, and Raekwon.  It’s a stark contrast from his typical role, but the over hour-long length weighs on the album and U-God is unable to carry it himself.

There is worthwhile stuff to find here though or at least some solid tracks.  Oddly enough, none of these come from RZA as his contributions (including a third in the form of a terrible intro) are embarrassingly bad.  “Turbulence” is a solid opening number from True Master.  Blink’s contribution of “Bizarre” adds some fun to the album even if the video seems to really want to make him into Busta Rhymes.  “Pleasure or Pain” overcomes what sounds like a Reload-era Metallica backing track to have some of the best verses over it on the album from Uey and Hell Razah.  “Night the City Cried” isn’t the best storytelling song, but it’s a solid entry.  It’s also worth noting that the designated posse cut, “Rumble” featuring Leatha Face, Deck and Meth was used as the main theme in the Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style video game I talked about last time and brings some energy to the album, it’s just not that special of a track.

Golden Arms Redemption is the first bad album from the group.  The highs merely rise to a level or pretty good to decent, but they are weighed down by everything else and I found myself struggling at points to will myself through it.  It did at least go Gold (ha!).  Anything less would have been embarrassing with that name (Golden Arms being his primary nickname) and the Wu brand.  His two appearances outside that brand in this period may be the weirdest yet.  The first was the remix of Blondie’s “No Exit” already an odd duck that had Coolio and Debbie Harry rapping (who has admittedly been rapping before all the people here) over Bach and Edvard Grieg, now adding in the curiously named “The Loud Allstars” (Inspectah Deck, Mobb Deep, and U-God) for the 200 Cigarettes soundtrack.  It’s certainly something.  The other is “Mr. Onsomeothershits” from Methods of Mayhem, a 38 second song for a band best known for being Tommy Lee’s post-Mötley Crüe/Pamela Anderson thing.

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Like GZA and to a lesser extent Method Man and ODB before him, Raekwon had the pressure on him of following up a classic album, in this case, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…  Also like GZA though, his follow-up jettisoned what made the first one a classic.  Most notably gone is “co-star” Ghostface Killah who was such a key part of that first album and now makes no appearances (possibly related to his six-month incarceration around that time).  In fact, the only two to make any appearances are a single one each from Meth and Masta Killa.  Not even Cappadonna who got his first break on OB4CL shows up.  Guests as a whole are at a premium with only two appearances by American Cream Team (Rae’s crew who would make scattered mixtape appearances elsewhere), Big Bub (of New Jack Swing group Today), and someone named Kim Stephens.

Also gone is RZA’s production as he doesn’t even make a token bit of input for the first time.  It was sign one in the ongoing RZA/Raekwon divide in the group.  Instead the album is largely handled by The Infinite Arkatechz (who had done scattered work for Big Pun and Nas), Carlos Broady (scattered work for a number of big names as well as La the Darkman’s Heist of the Century), Triflyn of American Cream Team, and the team of Naheen “Pop” Bowens and Vo which I know nothing about.  Pete Rock produces another track though, so that’s nice.  This, like so many of these other albums, is where the album falls apart.

Rae does some fine lyrical work and rapping here, it’s just that most of the beats are forgettable or worse, sounding so tinny throughout.  It was as if he had to prove that he could make an album good all by himself, and he sure tries.  Among the odd decisions, Rae curiously does a sequel to a Ghostface’s song on “All That I Got Is You Pt. II” and it’s a huge misfire of an R&B song (not that “Jury“, his other attempt at the crossover song is any good either) and he interpolates “Winter Warz” (another Ghost song) on “Raw” to cringe-worthy effect.  Meth’s appearance on “Fuck Them” is a combination of poor use of talent (not the person I’d pick to talk about how hard it is to sell coke) and Meth in full on half-assing it mode.  The skits are again worthless but not unbearable.

Yae Yo” and “Casablanca” are a solid 1-2 to open the album before “100 Rounds” sees some life birthed into the album with Rae’s spitting carrying the lackluster beat.  “Live From New York” is a highlight, the one track that instantly pops out on first listen and sporting one of the better beats on the album.  “The Table” is one that borders right one the edge of being great with a long quality Rae verse and a short awesome Masta Killa one, but they undercut themselves by distorting Masta Killa’s voice for some reason and of course it being an unimpressive track they are rapping over.  Pete Rock’s contribution of “Sneakers” likewise is solid even if it feels oddly filtered through the Bad Boy sound (hints of “All About the Benjamins” shone through for some reason).

It’s a decent album, but it lacks much in the way to recommend.  Raekwon fans who are more willing to overlook the bad production might find it worth listening to just for his ability on the mic, but I just see it as continuing to get further away from what I got into this group for.  The status of OB4CL afforded Rae quite a few opportunities for guest verses in this period.  He appeared on 12 O’Clock’s (ODB’s younger brother) underrated “Nasty Immigrants” from the Nutty Professor soundtrack, alongside Meth and Deck (as well as Killa Sin and The Harlem Hoodz) on Funkmaster Flex’s “Wu-Tang Cream Team Line Up“, Davina’s “So Good“, Tash’s “Rap Life” (Rae being the far superior rapper here), Fat Joe’s “John Blaze” (also featuring Nas, Big Pun, and Jadakiss), Smif N Wessun’s “Black Trump“, Pete Rock’s “The Game” (along with Ghostface and Prodigy), Slick Rick’s “The Frozen“, Mobb Deep’s “Can’t Fuck Wit“, Busta Rhymes’s “The Heist” (with Ghostface and Roc Marciano), and Outkast’s excellent “Skew it on the Bar-B” among other tracks.  It’s impressive throughout that he brings it in basically every track even if how much you enjoy each track is going to be pretty dependent on your opinion of the primary artist.

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After a couple disappointing albums, we finally have reached the end of this era.  We also end it the same way we ended the first batch of solo ones, with Ghostface Killah.  Here is where I have been saying how things have changed since their first album, but here’s where for one I get to note a bit of continuity.  For 2000’s Supreme Clientele is one of two (along with Bobby Digital in Stereo) to heavily feature RZA’s production and this time it leans heavy on the samples.  It’s a huge difference here and it’s what separates the album from the rest of the pack.  It may not have been as successful as Ironman (only going Gold instead of Platinum and reaching only #2 on the Hip Hop/R&B charts), but it has earned a reputation equal to or usually superior to that of its predecessor, already one of the better Wu-Tang entries to date.  It also established Ghost at the top of the Wu-Tang crew for many people, an impressive rise for someone who was originally one of the “lesser” members.

There are some changes to be sure from Ironman.  Continuing the trend of a reduction in guest appearances, the heavily featured Raekwon and Cappadonna from that album have been reduced to two appearances a piece.  There’s a more diverse array of Wu-Tang members than on the more recent appearances with three from RZA, as well as U-God, GZA, Masta Killa, and Meth and Red.  The affiliates are represented by Superb and Chip Banks of American Cream Team (the latter was shot to death later that year), Hell Razah, and Solomon Childs.

By this point his style was in full force filled with stream of consciousness raps and vivid imagery.  Mixing in street tales as the best storyteller in the group and of course plenty of braggadocio that fit his personality.  It leads off by sampling the intro to the Invincible Iron Man segment of The Marvel Super Heroes show on its own intro for probably the best one since Liquid Swords.  “Nutmeg” is a really fun collaboration with RZA featuring a beat from Black Moes-Art, Ghost’s barber and a mention of Scotty Wotty, a man who was nearly the ninth member of the Wu-Tang Clan.  “One” from JuJu of The Beatnuts flashes Ghost’s lyrical skills with imagery over a great track.  “Apollo Kids” is the big single and is just a whole lot of fun featuring Ghost and Rae over a beat from Haas G, the man eventually responsible for “Magic Stick“.  That Solomon Burke sample is just impossible not to groove to and gives it the big Blaxploitation feel.

Buck 50” is a great posse cut over a soul sample with Redman bringing out the best in Meth and Cappadonna also contributing.  The Mathematics produced “Mighty Healthy” is the other prominent single and goes for a nice chill beat with Ghost going especially hard over it.  “Stroke of Death“, is such a quick, cool, jittery track with Solomon Childs and RZA coming in heavy.  The Mase dissing “Malcolm” (beat by someone hilarious named Choo the Specializt) layers its different elements so perfectly, the piano melody, the soul sample, that whistling to create something immaculate.  He gets to really flex his storytelling on young romance of “Child’s Play” and does so while injecting plenty of humor in it.  An impressive task considering past Wu attempts involving women have had mixed results to say the least.

The final single of “Cherchez Laghost” (from Carlos Bess) is weird as hell and is largely devoted to Madam Majestic singing a modernized version of “Cherchez La Femme” and on the first couple listens, I had no clue if I dug it or not, it was something that I was glad was on the album for variety.  Yet, it is also the song from SC that I find myself revisiting and especially getting stuck in my head the most by a significant margin.  “Wu Banga 101” is a more classic Wu posse cut (from Mathematics), but that is far from a bad thing with GZA, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, and Raekwon coming in to help Ghost rap over Gladys Knight & the Pips and close off the album (essentially) perfectly.

Supreme Clientele earns its reputation not just as a superior sequel and far and away best album of the 2nd batch of solo albums, but as one of the best Wu-Tang albums period.  There’s not a bad track on the album and even when RZA isn’t producing, it’s clear Ghostface has an ear for and pick of top notch beats.  That’s not to say his rapping isn’t fantastic, because it is and he’s really come into his own, but it makes all the world of difference when he isn’t working uphill against the track.  It’s not a perfect album though as there is one major fault with it.  The three skits are unbearable and interminable (there’s also another intermission thrown in).  The 50 Cent dissing “Clyde Smith” (over Fiddy’s song “How to Rob“) is at least notable, but that doesn’t make it worth listening to it.

I’ve already covered a number of Ghost’s guest appearances in this time period, but his were in more moderate than some of the others.  He appeared alongside RZA and ODB on “Windpipe” off the Belly soundtrack, on Charli Baltimore’s fun back and forth “Stand Up“, and on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty (Part II)“.

There’s one artist we are missing though.  One rapper who didn’t get to release a solo album during Phase 2 of the Wu-Tang Music Universe.  Masta Killa’s day is still some ways off and while I’ve been mentioning his name frequently as a great guest on other Wu albums, he didn’t do much on his own outside of that.  In this section, I always discount contributions on affiliate albums (since I plan to get to them later) which leaves him with exactly two tracks; his appearance on Public Enemy’s “Resurrection” from the He Got Game soundtrack and his solo track “Shaolin Temple” from the Wu-Tang video game.

Tune in three weeks from today as take a look at the next group album from the Wu-Tang Clan as well as a couple solo releases 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.