Sunday, April 21, 2013

Uncut, January 2001)

by Simon Reynolds

Wu 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.

What 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?

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