Artist Spotlight: Wu-Tang Clan (Part 7 – Iron Flag)

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)
Part 5 – The Second Batch of Solo Albums (Part 2)
Part 6 – The W
Movie Reviews: How High (2001)

Iron Flag

Iron Flag.jpg

Bet you thought I forgot about this, didn’t you?  In a way it feels almost appropriate to be tempted to let this series fade away after the era surrounding The W since it’s almost reflective of the way so many fans were with the group as a whole.  While the preceding two group albums came with years of built in hype, Iron Flag had none of that,  It came out only a year after the previous album in 2001 and even counting Cappadonna, there had only been three solo albums (The Yin and the Yang, Digital Bullet, and Bulletproof Wallets) released by the group in the interim.

Those three were hardly considered classics (even if the latter two are underrated in my book) while Cappadonna himself would be downgraded from his status as slowly integrating tenth member to barely present on Iron Flag, making a single appearance on the bridge of “The Glock” (the second half of “Iron Flag”) amid rumors of dissatisfaction over the respect he gets (ha!) and as a result of his manager being busted as a police informant.  He wound up even being airbrushed out of the planned cover for the album.  The more obvious missing member is the Ol’ Dirty Bastard.  He may have only made one contribution on The W and a lackluster contribution at that, but he doesn’t even make an appearance here as his legal and personal issues continued to get worse.

Iron Flag starts off with “Intro” which is a nice and groovy one from RZA in an album which shuns the whole skit format.  It’s grouped in with “In the Hood” on the album for some reason (making it more annoying to skip) as despite its short length, it feels completely desperate from the second song.  “In The Hood” is a big sounding one reminiscent of Ghostface’s work in the period combining the typical street song with a more fun approach.  The many sound effects are excessive but don’t really affect the song too much.  Masta Killa gets the honor of the first actual verse of the album with Deck contributes the second and featuring the first of two guest verses from affiliate and regular Method Man associate Streetlife who has been appearing on each group release since Wu-Tang Forever.  It’s overall a good jam to start things off regardless of your opinion of relatively obscure affiliate Suga Bang Bang doing some unintelligible shit for the hook.

There’s something just off about “Rules” perhaps owing to Mathematics’ production which seems to be caught between the Wu sound and something more mainstream.  The rapping on this posse cut is quality and carries the song, featuring the second appearance from Streetlife (as well as the other two rappers from the first track).  Most notably though is that it’s also a track that deals with 9-11, understandable considering the album was released three months after that attack, but still a fascinating snapshot of the period.  “Chrome Wheels” seems to be straight out of a Bobby Digital joint (with RZA even name dropping his alternate persona).  I’m warm on those albums thus far but sonically it’s ill-fitting on the album.  It’s not a bad song, just one that comes across as a paler imitation of various elements that they have used before.  It also features the first chorus here from Madame D (not to be confused with “Cherchez La Ghost” singer Madam Majestic) who is serving as the latest of RZA’s go to female vocalists who seem to get regularly cycled out as well as verses by Brooklyn Zu’s 12 O’Clock and Sunz of Man’s Prodigal Sunn (who actually worked together as 2 On The Road).  Their presence along with Madame D’s prominent placement, minimizes the feel that this is a proper Wu-Tang group song when over half of it is made up of affiliates.

Soul Power (Black Jungle)” brings in legendary hype man Flavor Flav as an obvious fill in for ODB.  While Flav’s style fits perfectly beside Chuck D at its best, this is not at its best.  There’s a ’70 sound to the production which overwhelms much of the song including the underwhelming verses and at times it resembles a poor man’s Public Enemy song.  Flav stands out awkwardly leading to his ending conversation with Meth which seems like a forced attempt to justify his presence.  “Uzi (Pinky Ring)” is the big posse cut of the album (and the one track on the album to get a video) and more of the same from the last album.  It’s a fine example of the form if largely uninspiring, taking on a similar musical era to the previous track if slightly more restrained.  I’m not at all down with the chorus though.

Nick “Fury” Loftin’s soulsy production on “One Of These Days” is blandly inoffensive.  Deck and Rae do their thing ably, but U-God’s lengthy final verse really draws the song to a crawl and is the most I’ve ever sympathized with his critics.  True Master’s contribution on the other hand of “Ya’ll Been Warned” is probably the best song on the album with a great bassline and Method Man’s verse and contributions throughout especially standing out and doing the best of what seems to be an increased amount of interactivity between members (not a bad thing to emphasize when you have a group structured as uniquely as the Wu-Tang Clan.  RZA, Deck, and Rae (with the help of Masta Killa) also deliver hard verses which are the closest the album gets to that trademark Wu edge.  It also had a music video that was apparently never released properly.

Madame D returns very prominently for “Babies“, a slower track that again feels straight off a Ghostface album complete with Ghost contributing the first verse.  It certainly doesn’t hurt the quality of the track by letting GZA get in a lengthy and very characteristic verse to close things out (his trademark spot).  It’s a nice quiet, almost soul infused track which succeeds by not trying to do too much.  “Radioactive (Four Assassins)” blends a superhero sound with the martial arts sound of the Wu.  It could have been Madvillain-esque in both quality and sound but winds up being overproduced with too many overlaying sounds and especially sound effects (again after “In the Hood” though still not Silkk the Shocker bad).  Interestingly, by having GZA lead off, it affords him two straight considerable verses on the album.  Rae, Method Man, and Masta Killa all feel like a perfect fit for the song too, it’s just a shame that their contributions are so overshadowed by the production.

Trackmasters are without question the biggest names to produce a song on this CD being behind so many mainstream hits of the period (including having worked with Meth on “Hit ‘Em High“) and along with Loftin are the only non-affiliates (or RZA) to produce a song on their first four group albums.  Back In The Game” has hints of a classic Wu sound (and not just because it starts off with a reused sample), but again seems like it is something out of a Ghostface CD with Ronald Isley’s soul singing certainly contributing to that notion.  That Ghost’s closing verse is the one that feels most fitting is apt.  

Iron Flag” is a two-part song that as a whole serves as a second posse cut with only GZA not making an appearance (it’s here that Cappadonna makes his one appearance).  The first part is some classic Wu-Tang type work, featuring one of those sped up soul samples that RZA pioneered and would have fit right into the Wu-Tang Forever era both in sound and perhaps in quality (not that it would have been one of the top tracks).  The second part, “Da Glock”, goes for a sludgy beat and a repeated lyrical hook that quickly wears out its welcome.  As a whole, the song never quite comes together with U-God and Cappadonna’s appearance on the bridge so flat and painful to listen to.  There’s no reason for these two songs to be combined into one track on the album considering they have almost no thematic or sonic connection but at least they led with the better one.

Speaking of flat, we have “Dashing (Reasons)“, an uninteresting track to close out the standard version of the album.  The bonus track “The W” confusingly has no connection to their album of the same name.  Still, it’s one that aside from the monotone chorus which amplifies the title confusion, manages to be one of the better tracks and a better album closer than the official one.

There’s a lack of cohesiveness between songs on the album.  Part of that is with the greater percentage of non-RZA tracks, but he still produces the majority of the songs and even those don’t prove to be any better flowing.  RZA usually does much better in crafting a distinct sound to an album but it’s an ability that seems to be fading along with his reliability as a producer.

It’s great hearing Masta Killa all over this album after long being one of the more neglected members and he does great throughout establishing himself alongside the other “main” members of the group.  Sadly, that seems to come at the expense of GZA’s status perhaps owing to their similar styles who continues to feel underused even if he isn’t far behind the main grouping of rappers in terms of output.  RZA on the other hand seems barely present as a rapper with U-God continuing to be not much more without even having the fingerprints all over it that RZA has through his production work.  It’s not a bad choice of two rappers to minimize, but the album could have really used more angry RZA.  While it’s clear that the use of guests is going nowhere, there’re far fewer of them this time (and most of them are established affiliates) and it’s much appreciated.  It’s hard enough getting an appropriate amount of time devoted to eight (or nine) members without trying to fit in outside artists of questionable fit regardless of their ability.

There are certainly some very good tracks on the album, but there’s nothing that stands out from the crowd, a major problem when you are already sacrificing the album experience to emphasize individual cuts.  The rapping is still mostly excellent as The Clan hasn’t lost a step even as Iron Flag continues the group’s downhill slide.  The rapping still makes it worth listening to if not compelling me to throw it into the rotation (as a whole or any of the songs).  It’s no shock that the album only went Gold, compared to the previous titles which all went Platinum, a combination of decrease in quality, overexposure, general fading interest in the group, and the slow, inevitable fade of the market.

How High‘s soundtrack would have slid in here right after, but I already covered it alongside the film.  I wish I could include more albums in this post, but I’m on a time limit here and I’ve been holding on to this long enough so let’s just look at one more album, the only Wu release from the following year, 2002.

The Fourth Batch of Solo Albums

Legend of the Liquid Sword.jpg

There may not be a more appropriate title in the Wu-Tang catalog than GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword.  While it takes its name from the 1993 wuxia film, it’s also an appropriate descriptor of GZA’s whole career.  At the time, and to this day, GZA’s solo career was largely defined by his second album (and first since the Wu-Tang Clan started out), Liquid Swords.  His follow-up to that, Beneath the Surface, was far from a bad album, but it was one that has largely been forgotten and was far less successful.  It’s only appropriate then for this album to call back to his first one and to point out that it too is existing in the shadow of a legendary one.

RZA’s work is again limited to one song (as well as another where he appears as a rapper) with the rest of the album farmed out to a variety of producers.  Arabian Knight (who produced five off Beneath the Surface) leads the way with four tracks, but only Jay “Waxx” Garfield and Bink! (best known for his work with Jay-Z) manage to get more than one cut on the album (each with two).  Arabian Knight’s production is fairly uninteresting and while the other contributors don’t deliver A-material, it hardly seems to matter.  The album is an opportunity for GZA to spit over some decent beats and to highlight his abilities, a task it succeeds at ably.

Intro” sets the tone early by opening much the same way Liquid Swords does with a young kid (GZA’s son) talking before leading into some classic Wu style on “Autobio“.  “Did Ya Say That” establishes another aspect of the album besides hearkening back to his biggest title by heading in a far more unique and looser direction while still returning to GZA’s frequent critiquing of record labels.  Ghostface and Streetlife show up for “Silent” and while both are fine, GZA again is the highlight with even as the backing track grows tiring by the end.  It’s that last aspect that defines the album more than anything as track after track goes for repetitive, uninteresting beats that GZA spits top notch bars over.  Such is the case for the single “Knock, Knock” which has only the big hook to break it up but runs off of GZA’s skillful raps.

Stay in Line” features singer Santigold’s (Philadelphia’s own though at the time credited as Santi White) first credit as a singer after having written a song for Beneath the Surface.  As great as GZA is here, her work on the chorus is the highlight of the song.  “Animal Planet” is a nice chill song and “Fam (Members Only)” offers up perhaps the most Wu-like sound, understandably since it comes from Mathematics with RZA and Masta Killa also on the mic.  “Legend of the Liquid Sword” features singing from Anthony Allen who is decidedly not a net positive for the song as he tries to get in on some awkward attempted R&B and acting as an awkward hype man (few rappers have styles that clash with hype men less than GZA).

Fame” gives GZA a chance to show off, especially with the way he manages to manipulate various celebrity names into it, but the track’s simplistic beat, broken up by some off-key electronic sounds holds it back some (with some dancehall style contributions by Governor’s Two).  “Highway Robbery” serves as a Big Daddy Kane tribute by reusing and reinterpreting a number of his own lyrics as well as serving as a metacommentary on that very thing and the nature of rappers sounding similar all while making a compelling song on its own.  “Luminal” comes from DJ Muggs from Cypress Hill and a frequent collaborator and goes for a gripping serial kill narrative song, one that makes me wish GZA would get into narratives more often.

Inspectah Deck shows up on “Sparring Minds” for a solid if not as special as the collaboration of the two would promise.  The two can always be counted on for their reliably good work and this is no exception.  RZA’s one production credit is on “Rough Cut“, an affiliate spotlighting song which GZA barely appears on.  Instead the track is given to Armel and the straight off “Chrome Wheels” duo Prodigal Sunn and 12 O’Clock.  I have no clue what is going on with the beat and even with the changing styles, “Rough Cut” feels so detached from the rest though Armel shines as an interesting talent.  GZA hardly does himself any favors with his first self-produced track, “Uncut Material” with one of the weakest beats on the album, but he still makes it work in spite of that.

It’s again an album experience as opposed to one with any standout tracks, but that fits for GZA’s style and it allows him to continue to explore different sounds and styles.  GZA wisely cut out all the skits which were one of the major drags on the last album and despite being slightly longer, it helps this album feel possibly even quicker.  It also maximizes the amount of time we get to hear from GZA by going with far less features, something greatly appreciated with the way he’s felt increasingly like a more conservatively deployed MC.  I’d have loved for them to also fix the issues with the quality of production, but you can’t have everything, and I’ll gladly settle for listening to a master at work.

Those looking for coverage of the Wu-Tang miniseries, Of Mics and Men, will have to wait until next time.  Yes, I know it is all online now, but I’m pacing it out with the TV airings and so I’m only halfway through.  I will say that so far it is great and you all should be checking it out and that U-God has been surprisingly coming across as one of the most interesting subjects.  As for the new EP that came out this week in accompaniment of it, we’ll see but I want to at least save it for when I review the TV series.

Tune in three weeks from today for that and I hope to continue on with a few more solo albums.  As I said before, we’ve blasted through the golden age of the Wu-Tang Clan already (the works from today exhausted the last of it though I’m sure plenty could argue it had already ended 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.