Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever
Released June 3rd, 1997 on Loud Records & RCA Records
According to legend, Wu producer/abbot RZA struck a deal with the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan in 1992: if they agreed to give RZA total control without question for five years, he would ensure that they would change hip hop and become the number one group in America. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was the beginning of this plan; in 1997, when the sprawling double-CD Wu-Tang Forever was released, they had achieved RZA’s plan and then some. It’s easy to talk about Dre and NWA changing hip hop, or Biggie, or Pac, but the Wu brought hip hop to a wider audience than anyone else. The social aspect of the Clan was it’s biggest selling feature; it was never enough to just like the music. Liking the music lead to wanting to know about each member, and tracking down their solo records, and picking apart their verses in a comparative fashion. Was Method Man the best rapper? The GZA, with his esoteric verses? The balls-out crassness of Ol’ Dirty Bastard? The cinematic majesty of Ghostface Killah? Even rural regions erupted in Wu symbols and white boys suddenly interested in rap and gritty NYC rappers.
Wu-Tang Forever is the cap on this era, a blown-out tribute to everyone’s collective skills. Enter The Wu Tang was very minimalist, when it came to production; the RZA’s style had it’s genesis there, but his work on GZA’s Liquid Swords, Meth’s Tical, and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx expanded his pallet exponentially, and that expansion is keenly felt on Wu-Tang Forever. In addition to the grimey drum sound that he was famous for at the time, Wu-Tang Forever saw RZA adding in horns, strings, lush samples, and a myriad of other instrumentation to make the album much denser than Enter The Wu Tang had been. Of special note is his penchant on this record for chopping up old soul songs and speeding up the pieces to use as samples; if this sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Kanye West built his name on doing the exact same thing for Jay-Z’s stable. To go along with the supreme density of RZA’s production, the group went abstract on their lyrics, piling on wordplay and slang until it became a thick stew of instantly quotable near-nonsense that managed to remain coherent and thrilling despite that. The peak of this verbal insanity was the single, “Triumph”, which was six minutes, had no chorus, and still managed to be the best single song to come out of 1997 by a wide margin.
There are two major flaws in the record that manage to diminish all of the above, however. The first is the bizarre Five Percenter religious weirdness that is embedded in the record, especially on the lead-in track “Wu-Revolution”, which manages to deny evolutionary theory out of hand without any, you know, evidence. The second flaw is the length; at two full CDs even the magic of the Wu wears thin, and while there are a lot of great tracks on the album the second disc starts to bog down halfway through (somewhere around “Dog Shit” or “Duck Seazon”). It’s a drawback that a lot of contemporary hip hop suffered from, an idea that it was better to jam as much music, filler or not, in order to justify CD prices in the mid-1990s. Still, the album remains a classic, and certainly the last great album that the Wu recorded as a collective.