After eight solo albums (nine if you count Cappadonna) and two collaborative albums, it was time for the Clan to reunite in 2000 for another group collaboration. But this time, it wasn’t so special. The luster had worn off thanks to the flood of records from both the main members (which had been five and one in the first batch) and the countless affiliates who seemed to make up the entire population of Staten Island. It had also only been three years compared to the predecessor’s four-year gap making that wait not nearly so long (and that packing of albums even more tight). The industry had also greatly changed and threatened to pass the Clan by. Where each of their first-generation albums seemed to practically reinvent a subgenre of music and influence countless people, most of the next were more tepidly received with even a well-accepted classic now in Wu-Tang Forever then being known for its double LP bloat. The industry was threatening to pass them by as it moved on to newer acts and subgenres of rap and this was the chance for them to show that they were still relevant.
Complicating matters further was their nine-member crew now essentially being eight members. I detailed in Part 3 the many legal issues of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard and he was locked up during the recording of the album, his dramatic escape and escapades coming right before The W‘s release. As a result, he only made it onto one track, a track he recorded from prison. That’s not to say the Clan couldn’t cope, after all, they dealt with this on 36 Chambers with U-God (in addition to a still learning the craft Masta Killa), but they were down their most dynamic and arguably most famous name give or take a Method Man.
The album right off the bat seemed to learn from the mistakes of the preceding period. We’re back down to the single LP format of 36 Chambers, with 14 songs and a run time under an hour. Also gone are the other producers. With RZA burned out from so much production work and feeling underappreciated (as well as needing help filling out two discs for Wu-Tang Forever), he started to take a step back and as a result the quality of the sounds on the records suffered and is the primary reason for the decline in quality of the group. That’s not to say that all the good beats were RZA’s, but a lot were and his involvement on projects indicated a higher selection in quality available to the rapper. He produces all but two songs here, “Do You Really (Thang, Thang)” and “Clap” which are handled by Mathematics. The one thing it does do new, and I’ll discuss more in a bit, is go more liberal with guest verses to non-Wu members Redman (understandable and expected even), Junior Reid, Nas, Streetlife (who also had verses on Forever and is at least an affiliate), Busta Rhymes, and freaking Snoop Dogg and feature appearances from DJ Kay Slay, Isaac Hayes, Paulissa Moorman (who is essentially taking the role vacated by Tekitha or Blue Raspberry).
I also want to comment on how much I like the simplicity of the album cover. The Wu logo looking almost like the bat signal, the simple title, the members represented only by their names (or abbreviated versions of it) with a mirrored effect that at first glance makes it look like strange markings. It’s a perfect back to basics cover to indicate a back to basics mentality.
Opening on that short sample from Short Eyes which will reappear towards the end of the album in “Gravel Pit”, “Chamber Music” (though it is also sometimes labeled with “Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab)” as part of the title depending on the source) leads off the album. It’s a messy track, starting with when the beat comes in over the end of the Five Deadly Venoms sample and there’s just too much going on in the background. Still, Rae, GZA, Meth (who also provides the hook), and Masta Killa still make for a compelling bunch in spite of that. “Careful (Click, Click)” is another choppy song, but this time far slower paced and this one doesn’t work as well. It’s a bigger posse cut with verses from RZA, Masta Killa, Cappadonna, Ghostface, U-God, and Deck but only Ghost’s verse seems to have any energy (okay U-God’s verse tries but it’s not his lyrical best). I like that they tried something different here, the members teaming up on the choruses and it does stand out, I just can’t get anything more than a lukewarm feeling towards it.
“Hollow Bones” picks the album up though on the narrative with Rae and INS delivering great verses over a wonderful beat and lovely Syl Johnson sample. Ghostface also shows up, but I have no clue what he’s rambling about here. “Redbull” sees our first appearance from outside the Wu-Tang family on a group CD, with Meth’s buddy Redman leading off. Aside from some flow breaking shout-outs that divide the verses, it’s a good song, but I can’t deny that his presence here is a bit jarring. More surprising though is how well Deck fits in with the two of them at the end of the track. Redman at least had precedent though for recording with the group though, and “One Blood Under W” instead brings in someone who hadn’t ever worked with the group in Junior Reid. Here he samples and expands on his reggae/dancehall classic (or so the internet informs me as they are very much not my genres) “One Blood” with Masta Killa getting to deliver multiple verses. Despite my reticence with genre, though aided here by the addition of the Bond theme, it’s actually a pretty good, off-kilter song even if it is one that was an acquired taste (I may or may not have listened to the song half a dozen times trying to reason whether it was more reggae or dancehall because I am nuts).
It doesn’t matter how many times I listen to “Conditioner“, though because it will never be a song I care for. ODB’s one appearance and the sound quality difference on his verse is very apparent for he recorded it over the phone (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” this is not in effectiveness) since he was locked up. Snoop feels even more out of place here and it’s just a boring track overall. That is until with about a minute and a half to go and it basically switches to a completely different track and GZA delivers a completely uncharacteristic sounding, heavier rap that almost saves it. The centerpiece posse cut is an updating of the original track that brought them all together. “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” expands the cast to nine this time and subs in Masta Killa and Cappadonna (who weren’t around at the time) for ODB (who’s not around this time). The order is mostly the same this time around with MK taking ODB’s spot, Ghost and the RZA arbitrarily swapping order, and U-God going later but getting a proper verse this time instead of just four bars. Most important though is Deck leads off and GZA closes. On its own it’s a fine song that quickly moves through all nine in four minutes, but as a follow-up to one of their defining songs it is a huge disappointment. There’s not enough time for everyone to truly shine, the beat isn’t anything special, and what felt like before a collection of their best work now is just a bunch of mediocre ones.
Short Eyes sample starts off the “Let My N****s Live” and a simple percussive backing track sets the base for another album highlight. Raekwon and Deck are great, but in the middle, Nas (who was last seen with the Wu on OB4CL) is the clear highlight. His verse is both the best guest appearance on this album and the one which most naturally fits in with the group especially on this take on life on the streets. It also directly leads into “I Can’t Go to Sleep” and it’s build on a strong core of Isaac Hayes “Walk on By” sample and a rich chorus sung by the man himself. It also has an even more off-kilter performance from Ghost and RZA that features the former practically squawk-singing and the latter even more haltingly rapping than normal. I still really like the track, it’s just a curious decision that I’m not sure I’m a fan of. The first Mathematics produced track “Do You Really (Thang, Thang)” is a fun track that after features a guest from Streetlife as well as verses from the ever reliable Masta Killa and Rebel INS, but this track belongs to Meth and it is a delight to see him when he’s on and in full party mode.
Speaking of, here’s Busta Rhymes on “The Monument“. I have no clue why they’d bring him in to lead off a song when he’s always such a phenomenal closer, but this song belongs not to him or Raekwon, but to the Clan’s own closer, GZA who kills it as always. “Gravel Pit” is the undeniable play for mainstream appeal, but it’s also the song that I have always found to have the most replay value. It’s catchy, using Antoine Duhamel’s theme song for the French miniseries Belphegor, or Phantom of the Louvre, the repeated interpolation of Cameo’s “Back and Forth“, and Paulissa Moorman on the hook (and chorus) stick with you in a way nothing else on the album does. RZA’s intro over those horns gets you in the mood, Meth drops a lengthy but hot verse (complete with hilarious ODB sample), Ghost gets a shorter but crazy one, Rae gets an unusual for the Wu if typical for most bands moment on the bridge, and U-God closes out things well, before Short Eyes speech and sample perfectly ends and bookends the album. Oh wait, it doesn’t, does it? How awkward.
The final track is actually two songs. The first is “Jah World” which is another reggae heavy Junior Reid song and another featuring Ghost’s shrieking style (albeit a bit more toned down this time). RZA also gets a few bars but’s that’s it and it’s a pretty lackluster track that just isn’t my thing. “Clap” (which you can hear playing after it) was a hidden track which would be fine as a mid-album song, but it’s not the best album closer. Raekwon, Ghostface, Method Man all show up for solid verses, but boy is that chorus by Ghost (with assist from U-God) weak and unintentionally silly. It’s a shame the album ends on a bit of a squib, because it is an underrated one. Uneven and messy with some tracks that took a few spins to click, but it did in time. It was also the last Wu-Tang CD to go Platinum, the last group album to hit #1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums (only a single Method Man CD would repeat the feat), and the last gasp for the Clan as a dominant entity in the rap industry.
The album had four videos to promote it. The fourth for “I Can’t Go to Sleep” isn’t notable for much besides being RZA’s directing debut. It’s a cool video, worth checking out with some detailed animation work, but it’s the odd video out here. The other three form a loose narrative structure starting with “Protect Your Neck (The Jump Off)“. Directed by Joseph Kahn (co-director of “Living Dead Girl“, and director of “The Boy is Mine“, “Say My Name” “Toxic“, and countless more), they center on a time travelling elevator with the first going to 1988 for presumably no reason than to let almost everyone wear Kangols. Next up is “Gravel Pit” which I always love/hate Meth’s goof of saying and then hitting the wrong date by far which I choose to believe he just did out of spite for having to do this. We also get the most inspired setting as they get transported to a Flintstones-esque setting complete with punny names for everyone (some named in the song). We also get a scantily clad Tamala Jones (eventual medical examiner on Castle) filling in for Moorman and a goofy attempt from some stunt arms to pretend Dirt McGirt is there while also nodding to his current status. It’s lavish and absurd with crappy CGI dinosaurs and ninja Bokeem Woodbine. I love it. “Careful (Click, Click)” just feels like they ran out of money because they basically abandoned the time traveling idea and mostly had them humorously hide in the elevator.
In a weird bit of serendipity, the first solo album post group album is one from Cappadonna. His last album was a surprisingly solid one that would have been better if it hadn’t fallen apart by the end. I say surprisingly because as I’ve made it clear in these reviews, I am not a big fan of his style. There’s no RZA beats on 2001’s The Yin and the Yang and True Master only contributes a single one. Instead, production is primarily handled by returning producer Goldfingaz and Neonek (who to my knowledge has no other credits to their name). Deck gets his seemingly requisite beat on “Revenge” (probably the best on the album) and even Jermaine Dupri gets one on “We Know” which he appears on with Da Brat.
The Wu is represented in the form of Ghost showing up on “Super Model” and Raekwon on “Love Is the Message” and most of the rest of the tracks are loaded down with features. It feels more like they are trying to cover for something, like the fact that Cappadonna seems to be less rapping and more yelling most of his idiotic lines. He’s lost any sense of flow on his songs, and without the same level of music behind him (it’s not mthe worst production, but it’s nothing special at best), he’s left floundering. At least there’s a chance to hear Killah Priest and Shyheim after his career had largely fallen by the wayside.
RZA’s first Bobby Digital project was a surprise of the second wave of solo projects. Taking different persona is a core part of the Wu-Tang experience, but there was something about that one that came with a bigger risk of pretension than most. It was a risky and weird album too, but one that for the most part that worked. The decision to go back to that well again for more experimentation instead of a more traditional solo album was a curious one and RZA instead leaned more heavily into the persona for his second solo try in Digital Bullet.
It’s a bloated album at 71 minutes and 20 songs and that becomes very apparent upon listening. There’s the bones of some really good stuff in here, but there’s too much fluff on the level of “Domestic Violence Pt. 2” (featuring Goodie Mob’s Big Gipp) or “Bong Bong” to justify that length. You can chalk the former up to guest producer Tony Touch, one of only three songs not produced by RZA with another coming in the form of fellow album lowlight “La Rhumba” from True Master (the final non-RZA joint one being from Mathematics on “Cousins” but that’s actually a good song). It’s also filled with countless guest spots, possibly under the assumption that for all RZA’s qualities, he isn’t the best choice to carry an entire album by himself. That support is variable in caliber, Method Man and Masta Killa each make two appearances while GZA and Ol’ Dirty each make one. Sunz of Man’s Prodigal Sunn, Solomon Childs, Tekitha, and Junior Reid are all returning names alongside Killarmy’s Killa Sin and especially Beretta 9 who are all over this album. It also features the first appearance by Cilvaringz, a Dutch rapper who would later become infamous in the group for his Once Upon a Time in Shaolin clusterfuck.
Focusing on what is good or at least what stands out, I love the build and messing with the tempo of the backing beat of “Brooklyn Babies” with a great, un-Wu like hook by The Force M.D.s and verses from both RZA and Masta Killa. The album version overdoes it a bit with the outro, but not enough to kill it. “Do U” brings in Prodigal Sunn and GZA (a welcome presence here) for what actually sounds like a lost second-generation Wu-Tang joint in the best possible way with that full sounding backing beat complete with strings, piano, and horns. ODB’s showcase of “Black Widow Pt. 2” is classic Dirt toeing the line between crazy humor and poor taste. “Shady” has an awesome hook straight out of a late-’90s R&B song courtesy of Intrigue, shame about the rest of the song. A lot of the album is like that, where one aspect of a song (such as some grating digital effect or a goofy repeated hook) holds it back from being something more. It’s an interesting and challenging album overall, that winds up as a solid, middle of the pack one thus far but I appreciate that RZA didn’t just deliver an interchangeable album. For better or worse, these Bobby Digital tapes have an identity all their own and I’d rather let him indulge in a vanity project if he is going to try and prove something artistically.
Yes, we just covered a Ghostface album last time, but get used to it. In the span of 2000-2007, Ghost released six solo albums, two collaborations, and of course appeared on three group albums. His were also far and away the most critically acclaimed of the bunch and he essentially carried the Clan as it faded from relevance in the public eye. Bulletproof Wallets may not have run into the same issue as Supreme Clientele which saw recording interrupted by GK’s legal troubles, but it did run into legal troubles of another kind. Having been pretty flagrant about sample usage in the past (namely those Iron Man samples on SC), Ghost finally dealt with the problem head on as the original version of the album ran into clearance issues (at least partly as a result of RZA getting high). As a result, Epic Records cut it down, reordered it, and led to the replacement of some beats. There is a track listing of the original version floating around out there though for those interested and I listened to both for comparison.
“The Sun” featuring Rae and Slick Rick makes for the perfect intro on the original version. It’s such a smooth, feel good song with a trio of great verses. In comparison to “Intro” and “Maxine” which start off the album version fine, but in unspectacular fashion. “The Sun” also sets a clear tone for the album which continues into the lead single, the R&B heavy “Never Be the Same Again” featuring Raekwon with hook by Carl Thomas. It’s the kind of dime of dozen song of the period that I nonetheless still appreciate for what it is.
The Alchemist produced “The Forest” exists in two forms, the original and retail which regardless of version is an album highlight, but the original, which features Ghost singing along to part of “Tomorrow” from Annie, is the superior cut. It’s also one of the most traditional Ghostface tracks in terms of letting him come hard and also throw in quite a bit of humor lyrically as well. Speaking of cuts with multiple versions, “Flowers” also underwent changes in its journey to its retail version, but the change here is far more notable and to the detriment of the song. RZA’s original production is wonderful and it’s a fun, jamming beat, one that’s replaced by a lackluster imitation that sucks all the energy out of the song. “Ghost Showers“, despite returning Madame Majestic from Supreme Clientele‘s “Cherchez LaGhost” and tackling another Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band song (this time “Sunshowers“) can’t quite recapture the magic) of the first song with its awkward balancing between the club hit aspirations of his verses and her more traditional singing.
“The Watch” is another great, more traditionally hip hop cut that got the ax featuring Raekwon. “The Juks” featuring Trife Da God and Superb with production by The Alchemist and “The Hilton” featuring Raekwon with production by Carlos Broady are both bigger tracks, but it’s the latter that handles the formula in a far superior way with some quality spitting from both that at the very least equals their earlier hotel themed track, “The MGM“. The Mathematics produced “Strawberry” with verse Killa Sin (even if it gets interrupted by a useless skit featuring RZA and GZA) makes for a perfect bookending close to the album, which even the original version has to ruin by tacking on another useless track.
It really is a shame that all the issues piled up against Bulletproof Wallets because the track listing and unaltered versions that have made it online flow so much smoother even in cobbled together form and are universally superior. There’s no guarantee that would have been the final version even if the label, RZA, or whoever had gotten there shit together and gotten it made and there’s still some janky elements including the useless interludes and skits that pollute so many Wu-Tang releases, but it’s almost impossible to believe that whatever version existed was better than what we got. What we got was still good even if something like half of the best songs were cut or altered, but instead of another really good (if decidedly lesser than his first two) Ghostface album, we got an interesting expansion on his dabbling with R&B influences that doesn’t quite flow together as a cohesive whole.
There’s been a lot of Wu-Tang retrospectives lately and a flurry of new projects promising to tell their story. I’d love to think that it was just a new generation coming to appreciate the group, but it’s largely a promotional push for the 25th anniversary of their first CD, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It’s still a bit surreal to see a group that had largely been written off to infighting and irrelevance of most of the members getting a sustained bit of headlines and even if all these projects don’t come to the fore, it’s still fascinating to watch. One that has been released is the short documentary For the Children: 25 Years of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It’s not the first doc on the Wu-Tang Clan or even the first on the album (not coincidentally I presume that the two I’ve linked to earlier have been since taken down) with 2004’s U-God – Rise of a Fallen Soldier, 2007’s Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan (available on Hulu and one day I’ll get around to watching/reviewing it), and 2010’s Wu-Tang Saga predating it.
The documentary adds very little with at best token analysis and the occasional tidbit that you can generally find with minimal research. There is way too much emphasis on talking to random people and their opinions of the album which aren’t much deeper than “oh yeah, that’s my shit” or repeating lines of their songs. You can even tell which members of the group (looking at you Method Man) seem to have been forced to appear and which are just excited that people still acknowledge they exist (sadly RZA and unsurprisingly Cappadonna). It’s probably telling that the old doc on the album which got taken down was thirty minutes long and this rolls credits before fifteen minutes in. It’s a cursory DVD extra at best and I’d say it was meant only as an intro for newcomers, but it is far too embarrassing for me to imagine it winning many young converts.
Tune in three weeks from today as take a look at yet another group album from the Wu-Tang Clan as well as however many solo releases I feel like adding. We have basically gone through the golden age of the Wu-Tang Clan by this point, but I still do intend to continue through the rest of their albums and the work of a select few of the countless Wu-Tang Clan affiliates.