A brief few words about the best rap album of 1997 (although, given the fact that the mighty Public Enemy are currently out of action, try picking the second best rap album of 1997). The many headed music and clothing empire that is the Wu-Tang Clan has produced a (literally) arresting follow-up to 1994s "Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)". Mostly bereft of the tedious braggadocio of gangster rap, "Wu Forever" homes in on serious ghetto issues, promoting positivity as a more believable concept than old duffers like Prince used to, and wrapping it all up with an intoxicating coating of off-kilter loops and reels. The diametric opposite of easy listening, perhaps, or folk music for the new millenium, an evening of serious study with the Wu-Tang will leave you a simpler, better person, the kind of re-edutainment experience that all the best rap aspires to be.
WU-TANG CLAN The W (Loud)
Wu-Tang Clan's second album, the long, long player "Wu-Tang Forever", was a revelation. It rocked as diamond hard as Public Enemy at their 'music's worst nightmare' peak, it told the brutal truth about the urban American experience and it was engaged in a restless search for a better tomorrow. It drew from an incredibly rich seam of fine material, and still sounds fresh and fabulous nearly four years later. Sadly, continuing the prevailing trend of disappointing major releases, "The W" can't match it. Whether due to absence (the Clan's ranks have been depleted by Old Dirty Bastard's detention by America's finest, and the extent of his involvement is unclear from the sleeve notes) or dilution (a plethora of big-name guests appear, including Snoop Dogg, Nas and Busta Rhymes, and the Clan have been spitting out solo projects on an almost monthly basis recently) the spark that characterised "Wu-Tang Forever" is largely absent here. It sounds tired, one-dimensional, and is in no way enlivened by contributions such as Snoop Dogg's strangulated yelping over "Conditioner", or the resurrection of "Protect Ya Neck" from their lauded (but not by me, curiously) debut "Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)". For the most part, "The W" is a gruelling way to spend an hour.
Heres the exception that test the rule. Hidden away at the end of side three is their Isaac Hayes collaboration, "I Can't Go To Sleep", which literally blows the rest of the album away. Featuring a silky, gravity-defying string arrangement and twanging, stinging, elastic guitars that could have smooched straight out of Hayes' back catalogue, Isaac appears almost as Chef, counselling a troubled ghetto youth. It is utterly fantastic, surely the best four minutes the Wu have ever assembled, that rare kind of molten goodness that has me hanging on to the walls in astonishment. For all the poverty of ideas displayed elsewhere on "The W", this makes up the lack. Of course, it doesn't make "The W" a must-have, but as succour to the faithful it proves that the Clan might be down and diminished, but they're far from knocked out.
WU-TANG CLAN Iron Flag (Loud)
The third Wu-Tang Clan album, "The W", contained one part distilled essence of utter musical genius (the Isaac Hayes collaboration "I Can't Go To Sleep") to an unlucky thirteen parts of directionless, inconsequential padding. Unfortunately, "Iron Flag", which follows it with almost indecent haste by Wu-Tang standards, majors squarely on the latter. The music is dense, dark and chaotic, and peppered with their trademark martial arts film dialogue samples, and the celebrity guestlist that clogged up "The W" has been usefully trimmed (to just Flavor Flav, of Public Enemy infamy, and Ron Isley), but that doesn't amount to a hill of beans when considering that the Clan are responsible for at least one of the most important landmarks in hip-hop ("Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" if you take the traditional view, or "Wu-Tang Forever" if, like me, you don't).
You have to take pleasure in the small details on "Iron Flag", because there's certainly nothing worth shouting about in the big picture. A smattering of September 11th references are a worthy acknowledgement of the Clan's ability to move fleet-footedly with the times, and also a reminder of hip-hop's importance as reportage, and the slightly off-kilter loops that made "Wu-Tang Forever" such an unhinged aural delight make a slight return during "Soul Power (Black Jungle)". There are also supposedly elements of the "Sesame Street" theme music concealed within "Uzi (Pinky Ring)", although it will take a more determined Jim Henson scholar than myself to uncover them. But otherwise "Iron Flag" is a grind, that reaches its nadir during the aforementioned "Soul Power (Black Jungle)", during which Flavor Flav gets wheeled on, sounding as if he's dribbling in his bathchair, reminiscing with a Clan member about mutual friends in their Long Island hood and getting all dewy-eyed about "Fight The Power". Not a pretty sight, although given the dire state of the last Public Enemy album just about all that could be rightfully expected, a sentiment that could be echoed about the whole of "Iron Flag". At least from this vantage point things can only get better.
WU-TANG CLAN Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Music On Vinyl)
The Wu-Tang Clan arrived fully-formed on this 1993 debut. The band mythology and style was already completely in place, to the extent that arguably nothing its members have released subsequently, either separately or together, has matched its impact. Assembled from a gritty, lo-fi weave of soul samples and martial arts movie dialogue, its lyrical content - chiefly the traditional hip-hop tropes of drugs, money, violence and braggadocio - was determined by staging rap battles between the group’s various MCs to decide who earned the rights to perform over each backing track. It’s a hard and relentless way to spend an hour, but it lacks for nothing in determination, commitment and cohesion. The interview segment that opens “Protect Ya Neck” describes the Wu-Tang’s empire-building philosophy in microcosm, and the creative torture skit ahead of “Method Man” would become almost as notorious as the music. What “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” doesn’t have is the staggering, off-kilter beats that would characterise later albums; these rhythms are regular.
Reissued for the first time in an age on vinyl, the album doesn’t exactly give the audiophile account of itself boasted of by the cover sticker. The album’s lo-fi sound was born from budgetary necessity, but the long album sides don’t do anything to help its sonics. It’s enjoyable enough when cranked up really loudly, though. The packaging isn’t particularly lavish, either; the cover art looks soft and grainy, suggesting it’s been scanned from an original copy’s sleeve.