China: 20 Years of Wu-Tang Forever

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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.

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Bilal – In Another Life

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Bilal – In Another Life

New York’s Bilal Oliver has been a relatively unknown quantity for the greater part of his career, a time span that stretches back to his debut album in 2001.  He had been a hot item back in the early oughts, when his sophomore album, Love For Sale, was slated to be on Interscope and was to feature production work from such luminaries as J. Dilla and Dr. Dre.  When Bilal opted to scrap those plans and produce an album built around his own instrumentation, Interscope balked and the album went unreleased.  Such a reversal has set back any number of artists in a similar situation, so when 2010 rolled around and Bilal released another album, it was nice just to hear new music from him.  Since then, however, he’s put in time working – albums, singles, and appearances on the tracks of much bigger names.  He climbed back up the industry ladder rung by rung until he hit a breakthrough this year; Kendrick Lamar’s cultural touchstone To Pimp A Butterfly features quite a bit of work from Bilal, and it’s thrust his name back into the limelight.

All that “comeback from a career-ending event” stuff is heartwarming, to be sure, but it doesn’t mean a damn if it’s not capitalized upon.  In Another Life capitalizes.  Bilal’s tastes run through a swampy concoction of soul, funk, jazz, and R&B, and the work displayed on the album showcases that perfectly.  The singer found exactly the right producer in Adrian Younge, whose gritty soul-sampling work brought Ghostface Killah out of the mid-career doldrums on the two Twelve Reasons To Die albums.  The same core beats can be found on In Another Life, but Younge retools it to be lighter, more soulful than street-level.  While the synth-and-snare crackle of “Sirens II” could easily have hosted GFK’s cluttered, menacing flow, it’s a more than ample bed for Bilal’s smooth, streetlight voice.  It’s this particular formula that provides the best moments of the album:  “Sirens II”, “Star Now”, “Satellites”, “Lunatic”, and the Kendrick Lamar “hit ya back” epic “Money Over Love”.

Call it a comeback.  This is the apex (so far) of everything Bilal’s been working towards, and if there’s any justice it’ll get him more work in higher profile settings.  If you’re a fan at all of any of the kitchen sink of genres that Bilal is bringing to the table, you owe it to yourself to check In Another Life out.

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Ghostface Killah – Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die II

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Ghostface Killah – Adrian Younge Presents Twelve Reasons To Die II

Don’t call it a comeback – but GFK is in something of a career renaissance over the past two years.  After scoring a critically acclaimed juggernaut with 2006’s Fishscale he kind of fell off, releasing some diminishing returns (The Big Doe Rehab), a cringey rock-bottom R&B album (Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry), and finally the warning sign for every artist, the “attempt to recapture the old sound” of Apollo Kids.  Then, nothing for three years.  2013 came around and all of a sudden there was Twelve Reasons To Die, a grimy concept album about a murdered mobster named Tony Starks whose essence was distilled onto twelve vinyl records so that he might be summoned back as the Ghostface Killah.  It’s familiar territory for GFK, but the production hearkened back to classic Wu tracks and Ghost’s flow was on point, so it succeeded without question.  Since then he’s released another solid concept record (last year’s 36 Seasons) and a collaboration with Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD that ranks among my favourite albums of the year.

To round out a successful couple of years (unless DOOMStarks comes out, ha ha sob) we now get Twelve Reasons To Die II, a sequel to the original that sets out to improve on the original.  In the midst of a bloody raid on a rival gang’s social club, some mobsters discover the twelve records that contain the essence of the Ghostface Killah in a safe.  What follows is murder, mayhem, and the introduction of Tony Starks’ secret son, hidden from him by the mistress that betrayed him originally.  As far as sequels go it’s about on par with an equivalent film:  everything is designed to be bigger and moodier, and more action-oriented.  If the original was Bad Boys, this is Bad Boys 2:  bigger, bolder, and more bad-ass.  It’s also, unfortunately, more of the same; the presence of RZA on some tracks (as producer, rather than executive producer like he was the first time around) just shows to highlight how indebted Adrian Younge is to the Wu Abbot’s production bible.  It’s all menacing samples and chopped-up breaks, perfect for GFK and perpetual collaborator Raekwon to spit mafioso tales over, but hardly groundbreaking.  The reboot of the story seems like more of the same as well; again, while this is perfectly fine from the standpoint of the album itself, it does feel like GFK might be stuck in a rut here again.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, because it’s Ghost being Ghost and he’s in as fine a form as he’s ever been here.  Conceptual retreads and twenty-two years of Shaolin production aside, he delivers exactly what his fans want: grime, wit, and that hilarious eye for details that only Ghostface seems able to provide.  Like Bad Boys 2, you can’t imagine that a third entry would be at all useful (although apparently Bad Boys 3 is a thing that’s going to be inflicted on us) but at the same time, with all the action and explosions going on, you can’t really bring yourself to care.

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BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul

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BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul

For a long, long time now I’ve considered Dennis Coles to be the elder statesman and Godfather of Hip Hop.  He was the first verse heard from the Wu, 22 years ago now, and he kicked open the door to a much more cinematic hip hop world than had been imagined before.  Since then he’s been mostly on point, popping out classics like Supreme Clientele and Fishscale on the regular, and delving into some really solid concept work on Twelve Reasons To Die and 36 Seasons over the last couple of years.  He’s first and foremost a storyteller, maybe the best in hip hop.  Naming a Greatest Of All Time is a fool’s game, given the subjectivity of the medium, but if a gun was held to my head and I was forced to pick, GFK would be it.

BADBADNOTGOOD, meanwhile, has come roaring out of the Toronto music scene to make a global name for themselves.  After staking their claim on jazzed-out covers of classic hip hop tracks, they toured behind Frank Ocean and released one of last year’s finest records, III.  As an instrumental trio there are few that approach the consistent quality they put out, and as it turns out there’s only one band that makes better for better live hip hop, and they’re currently the Tonight Show band.

So, the two together.  Collaborations are always a tricky business, because the egos involved make for complicated arrangements.  While Sour Soul isn’t quite perfect, it more than makes the case for why collaborations can work out very well.  The sound is a lot sparser than long-time BBNG fans might expect, and while it’s caused some consternation in certain circles I truly think it’s the right choice.  They tone down the out-there jazz reaches in favour of a live action version of the kind of gritty, streetlight music that GFK has always sounded best over.  They play a sort of hip hop prog-soul, like they’re interested primarily in recreating the moody, smoky soul-snippets that make GFK’s classics so iconic. GFK for his part sounds perfectly at home over it, spinning out his usual dense, on-the-edge-of-ridiculous wordplay; his style may have gone mostly out of favour in an age of trap and drill, but it’s like slipping on a favourite pair of shoes and going for a walk down blocks you know all too well.

Ghost never quite lets himself fully go, however, keeping back the kind of cinematic street stories that mark the tracks on his other albums.  “Gunshowers” and “Mind Playing Tricks” are the closest he gets, and tellingly they’re the two best tracks.  The usual off-the-wall “WTF are you even going on about” moments happen as well, although here they’re mostly confined to “Tone’s Rap”, a brief sketch of a hard-done-by pimp getting belligerent.  Of the four guest verses, it’s surprisingly Danny Brown’s that makes the most impact.  His hectoring, Cypress Hill-esque voice is an acquired taste, but his verse on “Six Degrees” makes the case for his greatness.  The Tree verse is lyrically dense but flows by without really sticking, and Elzhi verse on “Gunshowers” is oddly indistinguishable from GFK.  DOOM’s verse is inspired and would easily be the best on offer if I didn’t keep missing it in the midst of blinking.

Still, this is a winner by a clear and comfortable margin.  BBNG might not be the right backing track for every rapper – Keef and Flocka would sound bizarre – but their moody, gritty twilight jazz-soul fits Ghostface perfectly.

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Ghostface Killah – “12 Reasons To Die”

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12reasons

There were a few years recently where Ghostface seemed to be going through an existential crisis of sorts.  Fishscale made him into a critical darling all over again, while The Big Doe Rehab found him treading water, hoping to trade that acclaim in for some crossover appeal (especially on the wings of Fishscale‘s great single, the Ne-Yo backed “Back Like That”).  When that failed to materialize, he groused publicly in interviews about people not buying his albums and his reticence at doing hip hop for much longer.  This period ended with his decent attempt at a sexed-up R&B album, 2009’s Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry.  His work since then (Apollo Kids, Wu-Massacre, and now 12 Reasons To Die) seem to harken back to his golden age, when gritty hip hop production was king, and Ghost was the undisputed master of detail-rich mafioso rap with a sense of humour.  That is to say, Ghost seems to have rediscovered his edge.  12 Reasons is by no means an innovative album (Adrian Younge is the producer here, but RZA is the “executive producer” and guess who it ultimately sounds like), but it is an album that remains sharply on point.  The concept is entertaining as well; based on a comic book, it features a 1960s Italian mafia man named Tony Starks who is murdered and comes back as Ghostface Killah, a revenant hell-bent on vengeance.  If that sounds familiar it should; it’s familiarity is one of its strong suits.  In a world that seems to demand constant change, it’s nice to know that Ghostface will always be there, with a blackly hilarious gangland tale to spin.
 
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