my Wu-Tang slang is mad fucking dangerous.”

GZA, “Bring the Ruckus”

Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)
The first time I heard the breakbeat from “Bring the Ruckus” kick in, it took my breath away. The song encapsulates everything about what makes Enter the Wu-Tang the definitive Wu-Tang album, as well as one of the most important records of the �90s: the surreal kung-fu samples, the throbbing sub-bass roll, the caustic percussion, the detuned horn samples, and the visceral lyrics. To this day, I insist that newcomers to Wu listen to “Bring the Ruckus” as their first introduction to the group. Beneath its sparse layers, the beat reveals itself as incredibly complex, making nuanced shifts for each MC’s verse. And the lyrics (courtesy of Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspecta Deck, and the GZA), while not profound in their subject matter, set the tone for a violent journey through the gutters of urban hell by sheer intensity of the delivery. RZA’s shouts of “Bring the motherfucking ruckus” simultaneously evoke the heights of rage and the depths of desperation.

And thus begins the 12-track revolution that is Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers Wu-Tang broke all the rules. Nine MCs shared the mic, all with equal aplomb. The RZA helmed the production, and through a pastiche of breaks, Stax samples, and kung-fu dialogue, created an indelible ghetto-noir soundscape as alien as it was alienating. In fact, it’s quite easy to focus on RZA’s production as the main reason Enter is such a watershed (and many critics have). The rollicking funk of “Shame on a Nigga” (powered by staccato horn flourishes and the garbled insanity of Ol’ Dirty Bastard) gives way to the dark, primal “Clan in Da Front” and the minor-key-piano hop of “7th Chamber.” “Can It Be All So Simple,” with its disembodied soul diva and hiccupping bass is a moment of poignant reflection that closes the first half of the album. “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” features more of RZA’s ability for turning breaks and bass into an infectious tribal throb that never gets in the way of his MCs. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing to Fuck With” resurrects the visceral antagonism of “Bring Da Ruckus,” while “C.R.E.A.M.” served as the group’s mission statement (and breakout single). “Method Man” gave the group’s clear star the proper platform for creating a dark, dirty, and ultimately danceable banger, a theme further explored on Meth’s solo album. “Protect Ya Neck” is easily the album’s nearest step to perfection, featuring every MC (save Masta Killa, who was not a member at the time of recording) at his peak. RZA’s production is a flawless maelstrom: a clunky, infectious throb, coupled with subtle piano noodling and buzzing sirens that hearken back to the Bomb Squad. “Tearz” belies RZA’s debt to Stax like nothing else on the album, and its vintage groove (yet with an undeniable air of menace) would be further explored on Ghostface Killah’s solo albums. The album closes with a remix of “7th Chamber,” which transforms the beat into a more intimidating groove. The production values are low: the beats ring with a metallic, canned sound that only adds to the album’s aesthetic (think garage rock). The raps lack polish, instead favoring the immediacy and urgency of one-take delivery – what better way to capture the impermanence of ghetto life?

However, Enter is so much more than a platform to display some innovative production. It changed the way people thought of hip hop. Wu-Tang clearly meets anyone’s definition of gangsta rap, but that designation is really more of a convenient labeling. NWA had mastered the gangsta rap genre, and brought inner-city violence to mainstream listeners. However, the group’s tone was more punk rock than anything: a defiant sneer to white America, while celebrating what it meant to be young, black, and living in the ghettos of Los Angeles. Enter does not immediately identify itself as gangsta rap: it lacks the explicitness of Straight Outta Compton. Instead, the lyrics reach back to New York’s own Rakim: dense battle rhymes portent with metaphors. Each Wu MC links his rhymes to crime and violence, allowing his preoccupations to surface subtly and indirectly, rather than spouting off overt gangsta-isms designed to shock. Raekwon “murders phat tracks,” Deck “leave[s] the mic in body bags.” As Ghostface says in “Protect Ya Neck,” “If rap was a gun, you wouldn't bust back.” The listener is drawn into a vortex that is unmistakably ghetto, but one that is shrouded in uncertainty. Enter is not a portrait of ghetto life a la Straight Outta Compton; rather, it’s an engrossing, almost cinematic environment, one with few points of reference outside the streets. The hood imagery of the lyrics is utterly pervasive and uncompromising, immersing the listener in a foreign land smack in the middle of New York. There is no celebration here, and little hope. As Ghostface explains, “I wanna have me a phat yacht / And enough land to go and plant my own cess crops / But for now, it just a big dream / Cause I find myself in the place where I'm last seen.” The world of the Wu is not a snapshot of life in the ghetto, but an introspective confessional of the devastating effects the depressing atmosphere has on its inhabitants. The ghetto doesn’t just affect their bodies and their daily routines: it infects their minds and spirits.

If Enter has one flaw, it’s an unavoidable one. Few of the MCs get a chance to expound on their unique personas (the most electric ones, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man are the only ones who distinguish themselves), so many of their verses lack a unique personality. However, this serves a purpose of its own: it creates a faceless horde of a posse cut, with each rapper spitting a verse quickly, ducking out and letting someone new take his place. It’s the auditory equivalent of getting jacked by a group of thugs in a dark alley, and makes the album’s tone that much more foreboding.

With all the copy that’s been devoted to Enter over the years, calling this album essential is an understatement, calling it classic is redundant.

Method Man - Tical (1994)
The lack of personality development (an essential quality in rappers) on Enter the Wu-Tang is par for the course when your crew runs nine rappers strong. Here’s where the solo albums come in: they serve to flesh out the persona of each Wu Tang member. Method Man benefited from a strong, distinct presence on Enter, emerging as the group’s first star. This is due to many reasons: his laid back flows, adept verbal play, and, not the least, an entire track dedicated to him. Meth still holds the title for Wu-Tang member with the most popular appeal, and Tical solidified his status as the premier member of the group.

RZA again shows his versatility as a producer on the solo albums, crafting distinct niches for each rapper while maintaining a high level of consistency and quality. The production of Tical is all about the basslines, keeping things energized for Meth’s bounding charisma, but retaining a sense of foreboding. The only problem is that things sound a bit flat this time around: some of the beats simply lack the depth and complexity of the production on the first album. I attribute this to a flood that wiped out RZA’s studio during the recording of the album, requiring him to redo most of the beats from scratch. However, Tical still shines, the result of remarkable synergy between rapper and producer that marks all first-generation Wu-Tang material.

The opening track, “Tical,” brings the dark undercurrent in spades through a clanking breakbeat, a trunk-rattling bass, and haunting strings. The heads continue to nod through the hallucinogenic churn of “Biscuits” and the swirling psychedelia of the first single, “Bring the Pain.” The single features some of Meth’s most adept wordplay: “In your Cross Color, clothes you've crossed over / Then got Totally Krossed Out and Kris Kross / Who da boss? Niggas get tossed to the side / And I'm the dark side of the Force.”

While Tical contains elements of the paranoia and danger of Enter, the album’s clear thrust is the party scene. It’s an overwhelmingly danceable album: almost every track is a potential club banger. In this way, Tical serves as a release of the tension of Enter the 36 Chambers. “Release Yo Delf” is the most overt call to hedonistic painkilling, although its triumphant horns never quite mesh with the hook lifted from “I Will Survive.” “All I Need” is perhaps the definitive hip hop love song, and although the remix on Tical does not quite match the intensity of the original cut, it fits the album’s bass-heavy groove far better. “Meth vs. Chef” features a rhyme battle between Method Man and Raekwon: both wanted the beat for their respective solo albums, so RZA had them lyrically compete for it.

The thick haze of weed covers the entire album – in fact, “tical” is Method Man’s chosen slang term for marijuana. Thus, although Meth occasionally indulges in the violent imagery of his peers, he never sounds serious about it. It is perfectly clear that Meth would rather relax than fight. He casually dismisses lyrical challengers over the sinister sub-bass and tablas of “I Get My Thang in Action” with “You don’t know me, and you don’t know my style.” Wu-Tang members RZA and Inspecta Deck show up in “Mr. Sandman” to drop some violent metaphors, but then it’s back to the party with “Stimulation” as Blue Raspberry (one of many near-anonymous Wu-divas) extorts listeners to “come together for the stimulation.” The album closes with a remix of “Method Man,” the star-making track from Enter. Meth once again does not fail to please with his gravelly voice and percolating flows, and he solidifies his role as the most charismatic Wu-Tang member.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard - Return to the 36 Chambers (1995)
The other major personality to emerge on 36 Chambers was the id of the group, founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The aptly named rapper captivated with his whirling dervish approach to the mic, spitting battle rhymes with a unique garbled charisma. Return is not so much a return to the overall feel of the first album, but it does emphasize the lo-fi, spontaneous quality that gave it such raw energy. RZA once again switches his production style to his MC’s need, this time using clanking low-end loops and fractured piano samples to give the beats a lumbering dementia that fits ODB’s sputtering freestyles perfectly.

After a lengthy spoken introduction, things start with the two-note piano melody and vinyl hiss of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” revealing Return as another party album, but one far more cracked than anything Method Man delivered on Tical. Instead of another verse, half of the first is reversed, and then the entire verse is delivered again. And it works somehow, mostly due to ODB’s maniacal energy. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” segues straight into the scuzzy bass groove of “Baby C’mon.” ODB has a knack for simple, catchy hooks (a similar trait in Method Man). As Dirty shouts, “Wu! Tang! Wu! Tang! It’s on your brain!” I have no choice but to agree. Once again, the album flows into another brain-damaged banger, “Brooklyn Zoo.” He delivers one long, unstoppable verse: one of the most entrancing parts of listening to Ol’ Dirty is that his rhymes verge on falling apart throughout the entire song, but he keeps everything under control. His studio technique relied on freestyles, which he delivered, and then perfected in the next few takes. Any other process would be a misrepresentation of such an explosive and impulsive character.

“Raw Hide” disrupts the tempo a bit, as Dirty loses steam (and lucidity) over an incredibly sinister grind. However, although Dirty sounds like he’s coming down, he doesn’t stop being entertaining, and Method Man and Raekwon provide some stability to the track. “Damage” is more of an old-school homage, with ODB and GZA trading rhymes over another bass-heavy churn.

Dirty focuses his sexual energy (heretofore an ever-present, but unarticulated force) on the next streak of tracks, starting off with the high school fantasy “Don’t U Know.” The explicit “The Stomp” features Dirty showing off a proclivity for Biz-Markie-esque off-key crooning, as does “Goin’ Down,” where he practically murders “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The album continues to lose coherence through “Drunk Game,” RZA and ODB’s hilarious deconstruction of smooth R&B, but ODB’s personality never fails to entertain and intrigue. “Brooklyn Zoo II” has Dirty at his most explosive, with RZA overdubbing his studio outtakes with his garbled rapping to create even more ODB mayhem before inexplicably running through snippets of the album’s previous tracks. “Protect Ya Neck II” attempts to recreate the lyrical tour-de-force of the original, but falls short due to the underwhelming (although occasionally promising) appearances by members of Wu-affiliates Sunz of Man and Brooklyn Zu (the latter group’s unfortunately named Shorty Shitstain still stands as one of the most undesirable of rapper pseudonyms). Even at Return’s most bizarre and irreverent, ODB’s high-strung presence keeps things together, even as he himself falls apart.

Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
The earlier Wu-Tang solo albums proved themselves worthy additions to the Wu-oeuvre, but never threatened to eclipse Enter the Wu-Tang’s genius. That changed with Raekwon’s solo debut. Although an undoubtedly skilled MC, Raekwon never managed to establish himself through his collaborations. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx allowed Raekwon’s unique vision to become fully realized. It’s a concept album of sorts, recasting the Clan as the Wu-Gambino crime syndicate (complete with new call signs). Raekwon adopts the moniker “Lex Diamonds,” with Ghostface Killah (AKA Tony Starks) as his right hand man. The story of Cuban Linx borrows from the real-life exploits of Raekwon and Ghostface: both were veterans of the crack game on the tumultuous streets of Staten Island (Raekwon’s “chef” designation stems from his duty of cooking up rocks of crack to sell; the album’s liner notes include a picture of him doing just that). Combining gritty, ultra-detailed narratives of the crack war with Raekwon’s own Mafioso fantasies turn street-level drug dealing into an existential parable that would make Hermann Hesse proud. This is an album rife with conflict, internal and external. Battles rage between rival drug gangs, while Lex and Tony struggle to make sense of their situation and remain on top. Raekwon’s lyrics are tinged with regret and uncertainty, as if he still isn’t sure where he stands: Is the drug game a means to an end, or an end in and of itself?

The album starts off with Rae and Ghost discussing their plans to get out of the drug game and the ghetto. Cuban Linx is their vehicle – trading street infamy for hip hop stardom by setting their exploits to music. “Knuckleheadz” serves as an introduction to the Wu-Gambino world, as Raekwon, Ghostface, and U-God describe the formative years of the syndicate, full of pasta, glocks, and drugs. Set to minor key piano riffs and blunted bass, the song exudes urgency and unpredictability, persistent themes throughout the album. The crew faces endless danger from the cops and rival gangs during its early phases, but contrary to the protagonists’ beliefs, these dangers never cease even when they have achieved success. “Knowledge God” kicks off with the sounds of snorting coke, washed-out strings, and deep bass. Rae is on top now, in the club consorting with “World of Sport niggas.” He’s on the inside of ultra-rich decadence. Raekwon treats this world with disdain, however: it is too full of complacency and laziness. He admonishes an unseen protégé in the song’s hook: “Let’s get money son; now you want to smoke shit?” Lex Diamonds is always on the clock, plotting moves and orchestrating hits. The second verse veers sharply from the first, recounting the assassination of a rival dealer. Raekwon describes his rival in detail, and there is an unmistakable air of identification with the dead mobster. But before things get too sentimental, Raekwon concludes, “I can't front though, truck loads of indo / Soon to blow slow, his ass is out now, tally-ho.”

“Criminology” features samples from the film analog to Cuban Linx, Scarface, specifically from scenes where Tony Montana starts losing control. The beat is spare, with only some blaxploitation grooves separating Ghostfaces’s verse from Raekwon’s. The track is a meant as a break from the world of organized crime – just Ghost and Rae spitting battle raps. But Raekwon’s preoccupations get the best of him as his rhymes skitter through a wide cross-section of criminal imagery before he finally attempts to get back to battling: “Yo fuck that, criminology rap / Speakers stay jet black floating in the fliest Ac'.”

The album’s centerpiece is rather early in the album. “Incarcerated Scarfaces” is an impressionistic journey through Raekwon’s schizophrenic world. RZA shows off some of his best production to date, creating an infectious loop that carries the song. Chiming keys make up a two-note melody while the breakbeat snaps and crackles with unmatched intensity. The intro samples kung-fu dialogue that perfectly illustrates the Lex Diamonds persona: “He looks determined without being ruthless... Something heroic in this man, there's a courage about him... Doesn't look like a killer... Comes across so calm, acts like he has a dream... Full of passion.” The song is a mission statement: boasts of successes, shout-outs, and alternately nostalgic and harrowing memories of the ghetto. First, an exaltation of the Wu-Gambino family’s successes, and also a warning to other crews: “Ya got guns, we got guns too, what up son, do / you wanna battle for cash and see who’s Sun Tzu?” Then, the hook, giving props to friends and allies in jail. The line “We could trade places, get lifted in the staircases” serves as a reminder of Raekwon’s vulnerability as well as a nonchalant nod to grimy project drug use. Raekwon almost seems to simultaneously address the listener, as if he yearns to trade places with someone and get out of Staten Island. Then, some of the most heartbreaking descriptions of project life put to tape: “Broke elevators, turn the lights out, stick one / upstairs, switch like a chameleon / Hip Brazilians, pass the cash or leave your children / Leave the building.” The song concludes with Rae acknowledging the unbelievability of his dire situation by insisting that the listener heed him: “Like a 27-inch Zenith – believe it.”

“Rainy Dayz” foregoes the triumphs of “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” focusing on the hardship. Adversity piles up: “Filthiest fiends scream for more,” “Niggas want work,” “Projects infested with rats cats and crack homes.” All this on top of one of RZA’s most intense and cinematic beats, layering strings on top of strings until they positively scream. Wu-diva Blue Raspberry provides some R&B histrionics, emotionally shading Raekwon’s cold-stare flows. Raekwon sums it up in one stark line: “Half of us'll try to make it, the other half'll try to take it.” The song seems to end for a moment, with the sound of children playing, but then kicks back into full squall, complete with thunderclaps. “Guillotine” is another respite from the streets, with Ghostface, Inspecta Deck, and the GZA assisting Raekwon in another battle rap over a spare beat. The cocaine and crime imagery still persists, especially in Rae’s verse: “My Clan done ran from Japan to Atlanta, with stamina / Clingers and gamblers, and gram handlers.”

The next track is a reprise of “Can It Be All So Simple,” which first showcased the synergy between Ghostface and Raekwon. This time, Ghost and Rae each recount being shot, complete with all the thoughts that went through their head. Ghostface says in disbelief, “Can it be an out-of-state nigga tried to murder me?” as he comes to realize how seriously involved he is in the drug game. Raekwon’s brush with death makes him pour himself into his work: “But now I'm all about G-notes, no time for weed mixed with coke.” The next track, “Shark Niggas,” is a brief pause, a verbal track with Raekwon admonishing MCs for copping his style.

“Ice Water” breaks little new ground on an album already incredibly groundbreaking, but it does do a few things. First, Ghostface shows himself increasingly infatuated with the wealth that surrounds him, which will become an important theme on his trilogy of solo albums. Secondly, it introduces Cappadonna, the on-again off-again Wu-Tang member, who would make a name for himself with his gruff voice, uber-impressionistic rhymes, and startling inconsistency. “Glaciers of Ice” starts with a skit featuring Joe, a crackhead who serves as an emblem of the destructive power of the drug. RZA again comes correct with the beat, somehow finding common ground between East Asia and Italy with violin and strummed guitar. Raekwon spits his verses with the precision of an automatic weapon, and the subject matter takes a more abstract turn, probably due to the appearance of Masta Killa, the group’s most philosophical member. The up-tempo track is incredibly intense, and samples of gunfire add to the maelstrom: “Hits from every angle,” as Masta Killa says. “Verbal Intercourse” features the only Wu-Gambino not in the Clan: Naps Escobar. Nas, Rae, and Ghost take turns spitting more depressing nuggets of ghetto life. Nas describes the inescapable cycle of crime: “Niggas come home, some'll go in / Do a bullet, come back, do the same shit again.” Raekwon provides some more hood imagery – “Pyrex pots we break, fiends lickin' plates” – and Ghostface ends the song with a double-entendre: “Me, Nas and Rae got the best product on the block.” The best rhymes or the best coke? Maybe both.

Ghostface tackles another favorite topic in “Wisdom Body,” enacting a scene where he attempts to seduce a woman. Raekwon spins another detailed crime story in “Spot Rusherz,” starting with Lex Diamonds wining and dining another dealer, Kion, then breaking into his home and holding him up for his money and drugs. The story concludes with Kion refusing to reveal the location of his stash, so Lex goes into action: “Shot his hand, he started screamin' like a bitch!” “Ice Cream” is another respite from the action, with Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon, and Cappadonna all weaving lyrical tapestries about beautiful women. The real star of the song is RZA’s beat, with an unstoppable piano loop, wordless soulful crooning, and vinyl crackle. “Heaven & Hell” is the official end of the album, with a melancholy soul ballad for a beat. Ghost and Rae trade lines, concluding with “We don't believe in heaven, �cause we're living in hell.” “North Star” is mostly a dialogue between Raekwon and Poppa Wu, the group’s mentor. The album ends with finality, but with a note of ambiguity. “For no man is good and bad at the same time. Either you good, or you bad.” Where Raekwon finally stands isn’t clear.

GZA - Liquid Swords (1993)
The GZA is the senior member of Wu-Tang: the oldest member, and the first to enter the rap game. It comes as no surprise that his solo debut places a strict focus on precise rhymes and pinpoint metaphors. Liquid Swords affirms the GZA as the Wu MC most dedicated to the art of rapping. Instead of flaunting a charismatic persona or distinctive flow, the GZA launches one finely honed bar after another, attacking everyone from sucka MCs to the record industry. Snippets of dialogue from kung-fu movies tie the album together: GZA approaches rapping with the dedication and seriousness of a martial arts master. The RZA is once again an essential presence, crafting a hazy, hallucinogenic soundscape of beats, bass, and incorporating a new infatuation with cheap synths.

All of these elements come together for the unstoppable juggernaut of the album’s title track. “Liquid Swords” is an homage to the influences of the Wu. RZA explains as the track warms up, “See, sometimes... You gotta flash �em back. See, niggas don't know where this shit started. Y'all know where it came from. I'm sayin' we gonna take y'all back to the source.” Then the hook kicks in, with a blunted beat and wonderful clipped synths: “When the MCs caaaaame, to live out the naaaaame...” It’s old school, filtered through the macabre Wu Tang world, and it works beautifully. GZA’s best metaphors come one after another: “I flow like the blood on a murder scene,” “Shit's played, like zodiac signs on sweatshirts,” and perhaps GZA’s most brilliant slam, “Lyrics are weak, like clock radio speakers.” A good metaphor is one that is original, yet easily relatable. Everyone has a clock radio, and everyone’s clock radio has shitty speakers. But this fact is not something that people think about and discuss, despite its universality. GZA taps into this universal nature, and comes out with one of the most memorable lines in the Wu oeuvre. The song is about as close to perfect as Wu Tang comes: GZA’s flows are polished and exact, and the beat dares you to resist nodding your head.

“The Duel of the Iron Mic” once again makes a connection between martial arts combat and battle rhymes. This fight is serious: no friendly sparring here. GZA’s packs every line to the brim with meaning, making his raps incredibly dense: “Fuck the screw-faced photo sessions facial expression / Leaves impressions, try to keep a shark nigga guessin’.” GZA’s exact references aren’t always clear, but his stoic delivery gives off an air of extreme importance and seriousness. The production is more somber, with a melancholy piano riff as the only accoutrement besides beats and bass. “Living in the World Today” recaptures some of the old-school bombast of the opening track, with a catchy bass line and well-placed horn flares. GZA’s rhymes are his most concentrated yet: “My rhyme gross weight vehicle combination / Was too heavy for the Chevy's is chased out the station / Double-edged was the guillotine that beheaded it / Gassed up, fuckin' with some regular unleaded shit.” GZA slings obscure references with reckless abandon while still connecting each line together with concurrent imagery or extended metaphors.

“Gold” is a change in focus to the gritty crime drama of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. GZA never takes his stories to the cinematic levels that Raekwon does, instead putting his own spin on things with metaphors and punchlines. Where a stark desperation ruled over the streets of Cuban Linx, paranoia prevails in the drug world of Liquid Swords. “Bum niggas sleepin' on the bench, they had �em wired,” GZA describes, as he outlines setting up a hit on a rival dealer. “Gold” is a rush of urgency, of a need for money as potent as the addiction pangs of crack addicts. The beat drives the song’s complex layers of shrill synths and disembodied symphonic samples through the breathless blast of the hook: “Fiends ain't comin' fast enough / There is no cut that's pure enough / I can't fold, I need gold, I re-up and reload / Product must be sold to you.” “Gold” flows into another somber reflection, “Cold World.” An incessant gust of wind chills the track to the bone, and GZA delivers more dense hood imagery. There’s a slight reverb in GZA’s vocals (an effect found throughout the album), adding to the muffled haze of the track.

“Labels” shows GZA willing and able to take on a theme throughout a song. A vicious diss to the record industry, the track sees GZA incorporating the names of record labels throughout his rhymes. The animosity toward the record industry is a hallmark of the GZA; his pre-Wu-Tang album, Words from the Genius, was poorly handled by Tommy Boy, leaving the rapper disenchanted with the industry. The first line, “Tommy ain’t my motherfuckin’ boy,” is dedicated to GZA’s former affiliation. RZA’s production is once again unsettling, with another complex beat centered around what might be otherworldly organ chords, played in disorienting chunks. “4th Chamber” shows RZA experimenting successfully again, building squelchy synths and other electronic ephemera on top of a solid Stax foundation. The track is group effort, a familiar outing for Wu solo projects. Ghostface, Killah Priest (a Wu associate), RZA, and the Genius all lay solid raps, with RZA’s distinct verse and voice leaving the greatest impression. Heads can prepare to nod once more with “Shadowboxing.” RZA’s got it down again, with a great bassline providing a base for some subtle sampled strings and a sped-up vocal sample (something that has become de rigueur in modern hip hop). The intro comes most correct, with Method Man scatting and RZA laying down some frenetic turntable scratching.

The last third of the album devolves into an even murkier and opaque soundscape. The cheap synths come back for their most squelchy and dissonant appearance in “Killah Hills 10304.” GZA lays down a Wu-Gambino tale in one verse, without hook or interruption. “Investigative Reports” throws veteran Wu-Gambinos Raekwon, Ghostface, and U-God into the mix with GZA; the result is an unsettling track that trades lucidity for paranoid atmosphere. The imagery runs thick, detailing many of the degradations of the hood:

Rugged rhymesters, crooked crimesters
Dime droppers, Twenty-five-to-lifers
Backstabbers, low blowers
Illegal cocaine growers
Starvation, profanity
Anxiety, brothers tryin' me
Gun slingers, dead ringers
Investigative reports!

“Swordsman” is self-analysis tinged with religious reflection, then dragged through the most frightening and disconcerting beats RZA has ever made: clunky drums, meandering bass, and eerie keys, with some harsh, grimy horn riffs adding to the confusion. The reverb on GZA’s voice is more pronounced than ever, reflecting the largest departure from concrete imagery on the album: “We were on the same ship when the slaves were checked / I had to pull your card, you was on the top deck / So I plotted my escape, I saw the thin line between love and hate / And fast from the hog on the plate.” Things get grounded once again with “I Gotcha Back,” which recalls the pressing horns of “Gold,” but tempered with more paranoia. RZA takes the vocal duties on the hook: “I gotcha back, so you best to watch your front / �Cause it's the niggas in front that be pullin’ stunts.”

The final track, “B.I.B.L.E.,” doesn’t really belong on Liquid Swords: neither the GZA nor RZA contribute to the song. Instead, Wu-family member Killah Priest spits a narrative describing his religious life over a RZA-lite beat produced by Clan in-house producer 4th Disciple. The song isn’t bad, but it doesn’t belong on the album, and it’s placement at the end leaves the listener unsatisfied after plunging the shadowy depths of the GZA’s psyche. And perhaps the unsettling way Liquid Swords closes perfectly emblemizes the anxiety felt throughout the album. The GZA is no longer here, but we didn’t see him leave; he could be around any corner, ready to drop megaton bombs more faster than you blink.

Ghostface Killah – Ironman (1996)
After the watershed Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, the world was ready for Raekwon’s indomitable associate to come out with his own solo project. Ironman dropped in 1996, with Ghostface Killah renaming himself to reflect his new invulnerability. Ironman is very similar in theme to Cuban Linx, so much so that it often has trouble emerging from its predecessor’s shadow. The crime tales are here, but gone is the desperation and paranoia that made Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords relevant. Instead, an overwhelming feeling of complacency and egotism pervades. Ghost and Rae have made it out of the streets and attained success; they are now content to rest on their laurels. Who can blame them? They survived the merciless crack wars of the New York ghettos and emerged as wealthy businessmen and critically-acclaimed artists. And although Ironman fails to make a distinct presence, the Wu-Tang talent still flows strongly through the album. RZA’s sure hand again guides the record along its content journey, upping the production values to create silky smooth grooves out of his trademark R&B samples, but retaining the aggressive air of a gangsta: a perfect fit to Ghostface’s hood-to-riches persona.

The main problem is that Ironman never develops a personality of its own. It has a (somewhat) unique variation on the Wu Tang theme, it has explosive MCs, and it has great songs. Unfortunately, the lack of any overarching concept makes the album’s weak moments stand out, where on previous solo outings a compelling premise could elevate mediocre tracks. Luckily, Ironman has its share of strong songs, making it solid, if not exceptional.

Things start off right with “Iron Maiden,” featuring core Wu-Gambinos Raekwon, Ghostface, and Cappadonna. RZA nails the beat, riding a stable groove while providing plenty of cinematic variations on the theme. Raekwon comes with some patented battle-rap-by-way-of-gang-war lines, while Ghost starts to hone his own persona, describing his wealth through schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness imagery. Cappadonna also provides a solid verse; although notoriously inconsistent, Cappa’s best work is found on this record. “Wildflower” tackles a subject close to Ghost’s heart: women. Ghostface’s relationship with women is a tumultuous one: he comes from a background steeped in misogyny, but nevertheless idealizes the smooth romantics of �70s soul. “Wildflower” is all misogyny though, perhaps one of the most virulent slams against an unfaithful woman in hip hop (which is saying something). After cutting off Wu-associate Jamie Summers in mid-rap, Ghost proceeds to spit over 40 lines of extreme woman-hating. Starting with “Yo bitch, I fucked your friend, yeah, you stank ho,” “Wildflower” is three-and-a-half minutes of jaw-dropping lyrical evisceration. Best line of the bunch: “My dick's the boooomb baby, marvelous hot steak.” The track also showcases Ghostface’s heavier emphasis on narrative than Raekwon. Ghost often sounds like he’s reliving events, playing characters and spouting lines of dialogue in his rap dramas.

“The Faster Blade” and “260” float by, with depictions of Ghost reveling in wealth that are less than gripping. “Assassination Day” is the next standout. Curiously, Ghostface doesn’t appear on the track, but Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, the RZA, and the elusive Masta Killa make strong showings. The latter’s verse is a definite standout, as Masta Killa waxes regretful about a necessary murder. “Temptation tempts my victim to proceed / Forward, ignorance wouldn't allow retreat / You'd rather pursue death than admit defeat.” Whether he’s making a metaphor between assassination and battle rhyming, or if he is recalling an actual killing is left unclear: in the world of the Wu, metaphor and reality are closely intertwined.

“Winter Warz” is a return to the hard battle raps of Enter the Wu-Tang, over a chiming beat and squelchy, shrill synth. Cappadonna drops an incredible verse, fully utilizing his proclivities toward inside rhyming. “Divine can't define my style is so deep / Like pussy, my low cut fade stay bushy / Like a porcupine, I part backs like a spine / Cut you like a blunt and reconstruct your design.” “Box in Hand” foreshadows RZA’s foray into making his own melodies and drum beats, but he cushions the beat with piano samples. The beat is still undeniably weak, and, unfortunately, RZA would indulge his cheap keyboard muse further instead of squashing it here. “Camay” rides a disembodied Teddy Perdergrass sample into a haunting soundscape that runs opposed to the verbal pickup lines thrown by Raekwon, Cappadonna, and Ghostface. Ghost’s verse is particularly entertaining: nothing gets him worked up like the fairer sex, and his lines shine with energy.

“Daytona 500” is easily the album’s standout, with an explosive beat powered by a rocking loop lifted from Bob James’ “Nautilus.” Ghost could spit anything over those snare rolls and it would sound good. “Motherless Child” hearkens back to the streets of Cuban Linx. Rae and Ghost take a moment out of their nouveau-riche lifestyle to paint another haunting street saga, with Ghost concluding, “Oh shit, what the fuck? / This shit is horrible.” It’s a clear departure from the matter-of-fact violence of Cuban Linx: Ghostface’s celebration of his wealth becomes a way to distance himself from his brutal past. “Black Jesus” comes with suitable bombast, with triumphant opera samples and horns creating a Wagnerian atmosphere for Ghostface’s just-this-side-of-nonsense rhymes: “I played the building, burn a branch and get filled in / Like Pilgrims G-in' Pepperidge farms from out a million.”

The next (and last) track worthy of mention is “All That I Got is You,” showing Ghostface adopting his soul man persona to the fullest for a maudlin ballad with Mary J. Blige on the hook. It’s the kind of less-than-revelatory song that attempts to give a one-dimensional gangsta rapper extra shades of personality. Here, it’s just plain unnecessary: Ghost has already established that he’s more than just a thug.

Ironman is not a mess, but it’s definitely the first Wu Tang release that feels like something of a failure. The beats and rhymes are there, but things rarely add up to more than the sum of their parts. The album is also marred by inconsistency of theme: Ghostface goes from successful former criminal to street-level thug to mawkish tearjerker without explanation or progression. These failings boil down to an uncertainty on the part of Ghostface: he doesn’t know where he stands. He’s out of the ghetto, but the ghetto is all he knows. This uncertainty is where he should have focused his attention (and where he did focus it on the stellar Supreme Clientele). Instead, we’re left with bits and pieces of a fragmented persona: as a sample from Carlito’s Way at the end of “The Soul Controller” articulates: “Sorry, boys. All the bits and pieces of the world can’t sew me back together again.”

By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2002-10-14
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