Monday, June 11, 2012

Viva La Revolución: ‘Wu-Tang Forever' Turns 15

At the dawn of the late 1990’s, Hip-Hop was in a transitional period.  The murder of Tupac Shakur brought the reign of Death Row Records to a tragic end.  It also seemed to signal the death knell for west coast gangsta rap as a whole.  Likewise, the murder of the Notorious B.I.G seemed to signal the end of New York’s reemergence on the national rap radar.  Though the Hip-Hop nation was in mourning, the time was clearly right for a new regime to assert its authority.  Since the fall of 1993, Staten Island supergroup the Wu-Tang Clan had been carrying out a silent coup.  In the wake of the East Coast/West Coast wars, they were poised to deliver their collective finishing move.  Their five year plan would culminate in a massive double album opus.  1997 might have been the year that the greatest rapper of all time died, but it was also to be the year of the Wu.

For Hip-Hop fans, the Wu-odyssey officially began on November 9th, 1993 with the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).  The Clan’s official debut was sandwiched in between two albums that placed G-Funk atop both Billboard charts and urban radio playlists.  Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle elevated Death Row’s stable of artists to pop culture royalty.  They also gave west coast gangsta rappers a handy blueprint for commercial success.  By contrast, the early to mid-1990’s had been a relative dark age for the east coast.  There were a few notable success stories, chief among which was Enter The Wu-Tang.  

The Album introduced a nine member collective from Staten Island, New York City’s forgotten borough.  Dubbed “Shaolin” the by group members, Staten Island was never known as a hotbed of Hip-Hop talent.  Its main claim to fame up until that point had been groups like The Force MD’s (of “Tender Love” fame) and the UMC’s.  The Clan would change the perception of their hometown with a chop-socky motif (IE gimmick) and an aggressively minimalist sound.  The RZA’s production style played as a rebuke of the slick, funky grooves created by west coast superproducers such as Dr.Dre, Ant Banks, DJ Quick, and Warren G.  It also provided a rugged alternative to the Jazzy quirkiness of the Native Tongues.  

The Force MD's scored a major hit with 1985's "Tender Love."

Clansman rapped over jagged, barren beats built upon drum sounds borrowed from various soul music rarities such as Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution.”  Dialogue snippets and sound effects from Shaw Brothers classics such as Ten Tigers from Kwangtung and Five Venoms helped to form a loose narrative.   Lyrically, the album was an answer to the war stories that had been emanating from the West Coast since Ice-T’s seminal “6 in the Mornin'”.  Such influences were crossbred with traditional east coast braggadocio.  The shadow of the Juice Crew also loomed large. 

Enter the Wu-Tang was a slow burn commercially, taking the scenic route to success. It took over a year to go platinum.  Shortly before it hit that milestone, the crew began it’s now legendary first wave of solo releases.  The procession began with Method Man’s Tical in November of 1994, and ended with Ghostface Killah’s surprisingly intimate Iron Man in October of 1996.

With the more prominent and charismatic Clansmen having been properly introduced to the world, it was then time for the group to record a second album.  This one would be considerably bigger and more ambitious than the first.  RZA had been hinting at the prospect of a new Wu-Tang group album since late 1995.  Each solo release only served to further whet the collective palette of their public.  They also had to contend with the rapidly changing tastes of a fickle Hip-Hop audience.   

By June of 1997, it had been 3.8 years since the release of Enter the Wu-Tang, and many new trends had emerged. Among the most prominent of these was the double album format, which had been rarely used in rap music up until that point.  The first ever rap double album was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s 1988 sophomore effort He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.  2Pac’s Death Row debut, All Eyez on Me, would popularize the format in the late 1990’s,  as did The Notorious B.I.G’s Life After Death.  Wu-Tang would follow suit, as a double album would give all nine members of the group ample time to shine.  The epic length release would be titled Wu-Tang Forever.       

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.  The first rap double album.

Wu-Tang Forever would give the RZA a chance incorporate all the tricks he’d learned since Enter the Wu-Tang.  His production skills had grown considerably since then.  He was now experimenting with live instrumentation and synthesizers.  His sonic creations grew increasingly less barren, and he’d learned how to better tailor them to the needs of his artists.  Even his choice of samples had grown richer and expansive, so had his mixing.  

The first wave of solo releases had also helped Clan members hone their lyrical skills.  Ghostface in particular was a much different MC than he had been in 1993.  He had unexpectedly emerged as the most versatile and consistent clansmen on the microphone.  He and Raekwon were now seen as something of a duo within the group, having developed an impeccable chemistry.  Even U-God had grown by leaps and bounds, delivering memorable verses on both Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Iron Man.  Everyone had improved, and it was now time to combine their efforts once more.

From the very first track, it was clear that Wu-Tang Forever was much more epic in scope than its predecessor.  The album opener, “Wu-Revolution,” plays like an infomercial for the Clan’s personal philosophy.  Over whiny synths and a faux reggae bassline, Papa Wu and Uncle Pete propose 5% ideology as a cure for an ailing Black nation.  It’s a bit pretentious, but it starts things off on the intended note.  The bombastic violins of “Reunited” play out like a superhero theme, perfectly establishing the idea of the Clan being Hip-Hop saviors.  It’s a bit overblown, but again, it fits into the established narrative.  

“For Heaven’s Sake” is another movement in the Wu-Tang’s suite of Hip-Hop heroism.  Its title suggests a frightened populace looking to the skies for a salvation.  The swarming strings suggest a band of heroes riding into the midst of war to restore order.  “Visionz,” along with “Severe Punishment” and “Duck Seazon,” form an unholy trilogy.  The instrumentation on each exudes a menacing horror movie vibe, facilitated by devilish synthesizer keys.  “Duck Seazon” in particular is a scathing (and shockingly homophobic) indictment of all haters, doubters, and dickriders.  

Chow Yun Fat as Mark Gor in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow.

GZA gets very busy over the wobbling bassline of “As High as Wu-Tang Get.”  “Older Gods” superbly updates Enter the Wu-Tang’s minimalism with a synthesizer assisted polish.  “It’s Yourz” is a clash of NYC block party ambiance and G-Funk refinement.  It also offers a bit of revelry amidst the albums end-of-the-world prophesying.  The proverbial moment of clarity comes in the form of “A Better Tomorrow,” the requisite “positive message” song.  The song borrows its title from John Woo’s seminal Heroic Bloodshed classic.  That film, like Wu-Tang Forever, exuded a certain level of pre-millennial angst.  It was made in 1986, and dreaded the coming of “The Handover.”  “The Handover” was the 1997 transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China.  That event had many Hong Kong filmmakers fleeing their homeland for the greener pastures of Hollywood.  In a similar fashion, the hook for Wu-Tang’s song begs listeners to abandon their worldly ways before the coming new millennium, lest they forsake their children: 

You can't party your life away
Drink your life away
Smoke your life away
Fuck your life away
Dream your life away
Scheme your life away
Cause your seeds grow up the same way      

The album’s lead single, “Triumph,” is a posse cut of epic proportions.  The booming 808’s, coupled with gradually escalating flutes and strings, make for as a grand a posse cut as has ever been attempted.  No less than eight group members are allowed to rock, with ODB providing brief respites from the lyrical onslaught.  There isn’t a hook in sight, yet the song is undoubtedly the album’s shining moment.  It’s the most sonically visceral on either disc, and perfectly characterizes the apocalyptic tone of the album.


The dirge-like “Impossible,” provides an appropriate comedown from the grandiose heights of “Triumph.”  It also ends with a staggering verse from Ghostface, arguably the very best he’s ever done.  In it, he mourns the death of a fallen comrade.  Emotionally, it’s the album’s bleakest moment.  It’s completely maudlin, though undeniably heart wrenching.:

Call an ambulance, Jamie been shot, word to Kemit
Don't go Son, nigga you my motherfuckin heart
Stay still Son, don't move, just think about Keeba
She'll be three in January, your young God needs you
The ambulance is taking too long
Everybody get the fuck back, excuse me bitch, gimme your jack
One, seven one eight, nine one one, low battery, damn
Blood comin out his mouth, he bleedin badly
Nahhh Jamie, don't start that shit
Keep your head up, if you escape hell we gettin fucked up
When we was eight, we went to Bat Day to see the Yanks
In Sixty-Nine, his father and mines, they robbed banks
He pointed to the charm on his neck
With his last bit of energy left, told me rock it with respect
I opened it, seen the God holdin his kids
Photogenic, tears just burst out my wig
Plus he dropped one, oh shit, here come his Old Earth
With no shoes on, screamin holdin her breasts with a gown on
She fell and then lightly touched his jaw, kissed him
Rubbed his hair, turned around the ambulance was there
Plus the blue coats, Officer Lough, took it as a joke
Weeks ago he strip-searched the God and gave him back his coke
Bitches yellin, Beenie Man swung on Helen
In the back of a cop car, dirty tarts are tellin
But suddenly a chill came through it was weird
Felt like my man, was cast out my heaven now we share
Laid on the stretcher, blood on his Wally's like ketchup
Deep like the full assassination with a sketch of it
It can't be, from Yohoo to Lee's
Second grade humped the teachers, about to leave
Finally this closed chapter, comes to an end
He was announced, pronounced dead, y'all, at twelve ten

The varying speeds of “The Projects” operate like a sonic speedball down the ear canals and into the bloodstream.  The percussion takes two rapid gasps of air before finally releasing.  The piano keys sound more like the bell chimes of a train pulling into a station.  Again, Ghost does an amazing job while batting clean-up.  His verse is an amazingly X-Rated cautionary tale, which begins with perhaps his funniest line ever:  “Suck my dick it's the kid with the fat knob/I bust all into ya face, plus it come in globs”

“Dog Shit” features the late, great ODB proving himself to be the heir apparent to Blowfly.  The musical backdrop sounds like a medieval fair gone awry, complementing ODB’s court jester status.  “Hellz Wind Staff,” which borrows its title from the martial arts Classic of the same name, is a ground zero report from the battlefields of Shaolin.  It takes place atop gusting winds and acoustic guitars.  A dialogue snippet from “The Unbeaten 28” provides a suitably dramatic close.  

Though a relentless thrill ride, Wu-Tang Forever isn’t without its slow moments.  True Master’s lone contribution behind the boards, “M.G.M,” is inoffensive but unremarkable.  The same can be said for “Deadly Melody,” which sounds like a morbid jam session.  4th Disciples “The City” would have been best left on a B-Sides and rarities compilation.  U-God’s erotic rap “Black Shampoo” stretches the album’s penchant for experimentation beyond reasonable limits.

The Wu-Tang Clan

Released on June 3rd 1997, Wu-Tang Forever Debuted at #1 on the Billboard top 200.  It sold 612,000 copies in its first week.  Prior releases by the Clan took months to sell as many units.  RZA’s famed five year plan worked like gangbusters.  However, the celebration was short lived.  The next week, the album took an unprecedented dip in sales.  It was the biggest ever second week drop for a #1 debut at the time.  The pop music press, which had been singing the Clans praises the week before, now eagerly reported their perceived downfall.  Still, the Clan got the last laugh.  Even with its precipitous drop down the Billboard 200, Wu-Tang Forever wound up selling nearly 2 million units. By years end, it was certified 4X platinum by the RIAA.  Though it didn’t have the staying power of Enter The Wu-Tang, it actually wound up outselling that album by a slight margin.

Still, it could not be denied that Wu-Tang Forever had failed to capture the popular zeitgeist as intended.  Many factors played into its perceived underperformance.  The first round of Wu-Tang solo releases had created lots of up front demand for a second group album.  That demand was bound to burn off quickly.  Another factor was how the Clan’s fanbase had slowly changed from 1993 to 1997.  It had become overwhelmingly white, which was the kiss of death for any rap group that prided itself on street cred.      Also, the death of The Notorious B.I.G had both overshadowed the release of Wu-Tang Forever, and facilitated the further rise of both Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy records.  Biggie’s murder catapulted the label and its founder into the pop music stratosphere. 

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s safe to say that Wu-Tang Forever has weathered the storm.  Today, it bears comparison to superhero blockbusters such as The Avengers. It’s an epic production with a huge ensemble cast.  Amazingly, it gives each character ample time to shine.  Though clearly not perfect, its strengths far outweigh its flaws.  It’s an altogether more layered and balanced work than its predecessor.  It’s also thematically tighter and more complex.  While Bad Boy toasted the coming of the new millennium, the Wu-Tang Clan stockpiled arms and gathered reinforcements.  Though their warning went largely unheeded, it still rings out to this day.  May the W always shine as brightly as the bat signal.  

The Wu-Tang Clan

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