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.
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.
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.