WU-TANG CLAN, The Wu
Uncut, January 2001)
by Simon Reynolds
lynchpin the RZA is almost unique in the pantheon of great hip hop
producers for having not-a-lot going on rhythmically. Most of his
creativity goes into Wu's trademark cinematic arrangements--noir
strings, moody horn stabs, dank wafts of gloomy ambience--and even these
tend to be looped and layered in fairly straight-forward fashion.
Trouble is, in this post-Timbaland era of futuristic cyberpunk and
jagged riddim science, it simply doesn't cut it anymore to take a
breakbeat and let it roll. Track after track, that's exactly what the
RZA does. It took me a while to work out why his beats are so subdued
and pro forma. In contemporary rap and R&B, the drums are
basically lead voices, duetting with and sometimes upstaging the real
vocalist. But for Wu-Tang Clan, the Word is King. Rhythm is subordinated
to a supportive role; it should never draw attention to itself.
Raekwon, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, GZA, and so on do is great. But
it's hard to see why headz rate the Clan on a higher level of
consciousness than, say, Jay-Z. Sure, they invented that
we-are-crime-family, collective thang. But everybody's now copped the
blood-brotherhood, dynasty shtick. And, 90 percent of the time, all the
Wu offer lyrically is more complicated boasts and threats than your
average gangsta. You get the alpha-male humiliating his inferiors by
stealing their women: "You know me/Every time you kiss that ho, you blow
me". You get delusions of invincibility and thugly nonsense about
fucking "bitches raw". You get crime/rhyme analogies ("used to be in
chains/now we snatch chains/took the crack game/applied it to the rap
game") and realer-than-thou bluster about how "the streets raised us"
and living on "hostile blocks" where "Glocks is spittin'". Basically you
get the same old shit--redeemed, just, by the cinematic vividness and
rapid-fire relentlessness of image-flow.
That said, The W contains
a fair few exceptions to this deadly combo of "talking fast saying
nothing" over perfunctory beats. Standard-issue RZA dirge-murk "One
Blood Under W" is given added ache by Junior Reid's mournful roots
vocal. Ol Dirty Bastard drools neat, wacked-out drivel on "Conditioner".
"Let My Niggas Live" is the only really rhythmically inventive track--a
percussive roil of brooding avant-funk that could be Last Poets or Tago Mago.
Based around a beautiful if over-used sample source, "I Can't Go To
Sleep" is a howling blues of racial paranoia. The similarly themed "Jah
World" makes an abject plea for deliverance from intolerable conditions
the Wu apparently believe are only one tiny step up from slavery.
In some quarters, the W is being hailed as a return to Enter the Wu-Tang ,
the group's worldstorming debut. And there's little here that would
sound anachronistic in 1993. OK, it's a great Wu-Tang Clan LP, complete
with the obligatory, well-stale-by-now snatches of dialogue from martial
arts movies. But the rap game's changed several times since '93, and,
beyond the diehards, does anyone really care any more?