Sunday, November 19, 2017

Album Reviews: The Wu-Tang Phoenix Re-Arises Again

The sheen on the iron "W" was scuffed following Wu-Tang Clan's disappointing 2014 album A Better Tomorrow and the whole distasteful debacle of the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin project. Maybe any press is good press, but while Wu-Tang remains generally beloved and un-fucked-with, the PR hit resulting from the one-two punch of teasing fans with a new Wu-Tang Forever-sounding album assembled by one of the team's freshest new beat-makers sold as one single secret copy to one of the most hated men in the world while instead serving to the public a fractured and subpar group project produced by a rusty and out-of-touch RZA, definitively marked a low point in the Wu-Tang legacy. Maybe the lowest point.

Not to be kept down for long, the Wu phoenix has re-arisen again. The whole Wu-Tang conglomerate has regrouped and brought forth a swarm in 2017, releasing a slew of new projects that serve to reassert their present skills and still-fearsome roster depth while burnishing the legacy of the brand. No bullshit, no gimmicks, just dope beats and dope rhymes. (To top it off, the asshole who acquired the single copy album, Martin Shkreli, was sentenced to prison in a case where a prospective juror stated on the record that he held a grudge against Shkreli because "he disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan.")

Here are some capsule reviews of the new projects brought forth in 2017 thus far.

The Saga Continues - Wu-Tang

Leading the charge is the new album The Saga Continues where RZA grants production duties to the group's longtime DJ Allah Mathematics. Known for having designed the iconic W symbol and producing the occasional banger like "Mighty Healthy," Mathematics generally tries to stay close to the patented formula on Saga Continues. Unlike other Wu affiliated producers like True Master or 4th Disciple, there's isn't any especially noticeable signature element to a Mathematics beat. On Saga Continues he even opts to go without samples. The result, to many ears, sounds like a generic, cookie cutter version of the Wu sound. I saw a reviewer liken some of its beats to mid-2000s G-Unit tracks. For me, the production is hit-or-miss, the bars solid enough. Granted, Ghostface barely appears, GZA gives just one okay verse on a boring beat. Saga Continues is unspectacular, yes, but at this stage it's good enough and represents an improvement over RZA's Better Tomorrow snooze fest.

RZA and Math did a massive promotional push for the record, appearing on seemingly every major hip hop-friendly radio and TV station. It became evident in their many interviews that this album actually began as a Method Man solo project and later evolved into something they could label as a Wu-Tang group effort (though, oddly, they left out the "Clan" part apparently because a disgruntled U-God refused to participate, leaving the team incomplete). Method Man dominates this record, appearing on almost every song. Wu-Tang cousin and fellow Staten Island resident Redman also appears a few times, his energized mic presence a welcome addition to the mix. Even if the album does sound like a Math, Meth & Wu Friends type of project, it still amounts to a strong reassertion of what Wu-Tang represents in 2017. It's easy to get it twisted, what with all the drama, literally (infighting) and figuratively (RZA has veered off into the movie industry and Meth is a regular character on David Simon's new show, The Deuce), but the Wu-Tang Clan remains committed to hip hop excellence. Method Man especially sounds fantastic on Saga, the flow is precise and energized, the writing game as clever as he's ever been. And RZA, who I tend to be extremely critical of since his early work puts him atop my list of favorite lyricists, sounds more focused than he has in a while.

I've stated before that the decline in quality of Wu-Tang Clan albums is directly related to their including more and more corny vocalists in their tracks. While this trend continues on The Saga Continues, they seem to have figured out how to strike the correct notes with it, at least to my ears. Two of my favorite tracks are heavy with vocalists, "Why Why Why" and "My Only One." In the former, the Abbott RZA comments on the continued oppression of blacks in America, while on the latter, the Clan presents a noticeably mature bit of love story rap, relatively free of misogyny or sexual objectification. (Refreshing to hear that in 2017 from one of rap's raunchiest crews.) The vocalists on both sing simple short bars that turn into good choruses.

As a whole the project, insulated with kung-fu skits, is fairly brief and doesn't represent anything of enormous impact for Wu-Tang compared to the rest of their catalog. But it does serve as a solid opening salvo for a resurgence of the whole faction.


Further reinforcing his sustained rap abilities, Method Man dropped a dope freestyle alongside one of the game's most formidable off-the-cuff spitters, Black Thought. The flow remains tight, the bars remain clever. I get a sense of hometown Staten Island pride seeing Mr. Mef reassert his rap relevance and ingenuity while maintaining an acting career.

And RZA, in one of his dozens of recent media appearances, opened up like I've rarely seen him do on a Hot 97 interview, sharing his inspiring wisdom as he addressed the state of the world today. We RZA fans have given up on waiting for his promised LP The Cure, but I feel like he presents us with all of the elements of The Cure in his monologues here:


and if you're not educated about something,
ya gonna be walking around confused.


That's Peace.

Peace is the absence of confusion.

- The Abbott

Loyalty is Royalty - Masta Killa
Released concurrently with Saga Continues was Masta Killa's long-promised solo LP Loyalty is Royalty, serving as a perfect companion piece to the group record. Long regarded as one of the lesser lights of the Clan, Masta Killa's low-key personality has helped disguise his ascent into the upper ranks of the group as an emcee over the last decade or so. He displayed an unexpected versatility on his 2004 solo debut No Said Date, followed up with a show-stealing performance on 8 Diagrams, and was one of the few bright spots on A Better Tomorrow. He continues to grow into his own with his fifth solo album Loyalty is Royalty, sticking to his strengths (see "Love Spell" and "Queen" from No Said Date and "Nehanda and Cream" off Made in Brooklyn) with slick, soulful stories about wooing classy women on the title track "Loyalty is Royalty" and the Thomas Crown Affair-inspired "Noodles Pt 1 & 2" while slicing through certified Wu bangers "Therapy" (alongside Red & Mef) and "Tiger and the Mantice" (with Inspectah Deck & GZA) with his signature laid-back lyrical assassin style.

Loyalty is Royalty also has Masta Killa rapping alongside recently deceased legends Prodigy and Sean Price. My favorite track is probably "Trouble" where Killa presents three stories through three verses delivered with alacrity over the heavy drums and emotive, brisk-paced 9th Wonder beat. If The Saga Continues feels a bit watered down for mass consumption, Loyalty is Royalty works as a more pure version of the cutting edge in Wu-Tang music, designed for hardcore hip hop tastes. I think Masta Killa has actually perfected the Wu-Tang version of "grown man rap," his cinematic verses continuing to shine here represent one of the best things about Wu-Tang nowadays.   


While Wu-Tang has been all over the place, this Masta Killa interview may have slipped under the radar. It's one of the more in-depth Wu interviews I've ever seen. Wu-Tang junkie Peter Rosenberg had the chance to do an exclusive interview with the Masta, during which the silent assassin opened up with some fascinating stories about Wu-Tang's genesis and his individual development as an artist with the crew. They even played some verses and discussed certain lines. There are some gems in here. And Killa comes across as a humble, intelligent dude who simply loves to make hip hop music and play chess. Highly recommended viewing:

Mental Chambers V & "I" Instrumentals & more - Cilvaringz

Wu-Tang's Dutch Moroccan affiliate Cilvaringz certainly pissed many people off within the hip hop community by spearheading the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin project through the following machinations: launching it as a Wu diehard's dream featuring every member of the family tree he could find for an epic LP, then shifting course to make it a single copy art project sold to the highest bidder, hidden from the public's ears, eventually delivered into the hands of the hated Pharma Bro who proceeded to publicly drag the names of RZA, Ghostface, and Cilvaringz through the dirt.

Part of what made that Once Upon a Time in Shaolin so frustrating, though, is that Cilvaringz is undoubtedly a supreme talent. A long-time fan turned inspired and polished producer, Ringz knows the sound Wu-Tang fans crave to hear and he's shown an ability to produce it in an upgraded style that blends with the exotic elements of his side of the Atlantic. This was evident on his debut album "I" whose highlights were the crisp production from Ringz and all the Wu family features. The recent release of the instrumentals from that record allows us to enjoy what Ringz does best: craft great beats.

When Mathematics describes the creation of The Saga Continues he notes an intent to blend the sounds of Dr. Dre's Chronic 2001 with 36 Chambers. The result is a little more generic Dre than gritty Wu. The crisp orchestral hip hop tones Cilvaringz brought to "I" sound more like what that blend would strive for. Beats like "The Weeping Tiger," "Jewels" and "In the Name of Allah" have a vital force to them, built from hard-knocking elements, displaying originality despite being vaguely reminiscent of peak late-90s Wu-Tang. "Forever Michael" is tailor made for ODB...if only that could've happened. My favorite of the "I" instrumentals is actually a 4th Disciple beat, though: "Elephant Juice" which I consider on par with some of his best work.

Mental Chambers V consists entirely of Cilvaringz beats presented here for the first time. I've proclaimed his production chops in this writeup already a few times---needless to say, a batch of new Cilvaringz beats is worth paying attention to. In the collection's best instrumentals---"The Teacher", "The Burning Spear", "Grimson Tide", "A True Master", "Barabbas the Brute"---he manages to use thick percussive elements, lush strings, and his own individual artistic touch to create a shadowy grim mood, a feeling that resonates with peak Wu-Tang yet sounds like its own thing (with the exception of "A True Master" which is openly an attempt to mimic True Master's off-kilter vibe). Great as much of this collection sounds, it's also frustrating to realize that all of it was originally designed specifically for Wu members who never seized the opportunity. The snippets of bars we hear from Killa Sin (on "Grimson Tide") and Killah Priest ("Barabbas the Brute") serve only to tease the listener with what could have been.

Within the batch of newly released material, Ringz also included some extras, like the original version of "You'll Never Know" with RZA and the previously-unheard full version of "Energy" with 4th Disciple, Beretta 9, and Bronze Nazareth.

The Spark - Prodigal Sunn

Continuing the waves of new Wu-Tang material dropping, Prodigal Sunn of the Sunz of Man released a solo LP loaded with Wu family features. It's also surprisingly solid in production despite no recognizable beatmakers. And P-Sunn remains a talented emcee with a steadily paced flow and smooth rhyme cadence. The overall draw of the album for a Wu head is the batch of features from the likes of Ghostface, Killah Priest, and others but Prodigal Sunn also stands out as a solo emcee on tracks like "Dedication" (which I keep coming back to):

Ghostface drops a nice verse as a feature on "Big Manufacturers" over a beat that sounds tailor made for his style. Masta Killa delivers the sharpest verse on the whole album, maybe the best verse out of this whole new collection of Wu releases, when he steps into "The Habitat" with: "From the shadow, I throw a Tom Brady spiral arrow, thru a chrome-44 magnum barrel" and only accelerates from there. The ultimate highlight of this album, though, is the final track "Reoccurring Occasion" where Prodigal Sunn brings in 60 Second Assassin from Sunz of Man and the two shred apart a blistering piano beat. 60 Sec is as ingrained in Wu-Tang lore as anybody; his vocals are weaved throughout "C.R.E.A.M." and he's ODB's cousin. It's often stated that ODB was the soul of Wu-Tang and his energetic element has been noticeably missing ever since. Based on what we hear from 60 Sec on "Reoccurring Occasion"---a vibrant, combustible yet controlled rhyming force---maybe the Clan could stand to use that soulful spark from the Russell Jones bloodline.

Don't Sit on the Speakers - Killah Priest & 4th Disciple

This recently released project features Killah Priest reuniting with longtime collaborator and legendary Wu-Tang producer 4th Disciple to recapture the essence of hip hop's origins. Every track on here sounds like a soul record being spun on turntables with an emcee spitting rhymes as swiftly as possible. It consists entirely of rapid flows, funky soul loops, and dusty scratches. 4th Disciple even invokes the vibe of a radio station with different rap luminaries appearing through call-in shoutouts and old radio clips.

I've only gotten to hear this project a few times since its release the other day but I'm very excited about it. Killah Priest is as formidable as any emcee walking the earth and his versatility is on full display here. His recent albums have been contemplative sci-fi trips---here his lyrical content maintains the astronaut helmet and headdress of a Sun Ra-esque space mystic, but the flows are all 80s park jam style. Raekwon, Ghostface, and Cappadonna step into the mix to take their cuts too. Ghost sounds incredible on "Rokit"---the rapid, flavorful wordplay and imagery over dusty boombap makes one hungry for the long-awaited Ghost & DOOM collabo. It's early yet, but this project has the makings of a masterpiece.

Hip Hop the Mixtape - Cappadonna (w/ Pete Rock)

With so much new material (and so much going on in life) I haven't even had the chance to listen to this intriguing joint much. That only speaks to the vastness of this latest Wu-Tang swarm. This one conglomerate, now actively in the midst of their third decade, practically represents a genre of music in and of itself, while also embodying the very essence, the grain of hip hop music.

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