The introduction to the second disc of the Wu-Tang Clan's new double CD, "Wu-Tang Forever," is an extended proclamation by the group's de facto leader, RZA "The Abbot," about the current state of hip-hop and how the Wu's latest fits in it. "For the last year," he begins, "there's been a lot of music coming out -- the shit's been weak."
In a word: Word! Truth is, as far as hip-hop is concerned, it's been weak for more than just the last year. The sorry state of what was arguably the most dynamic and powerful music being made just five years ago has recently been decried by critics and the hip-hop community alike. The shootings of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. and the genre's increasingly passionate -- albeit mostly disastrous -- romance with R&B ("rap and bullshit," according to RZA) only hammered home the point. And despite the slew of new rap releases, it was starting to look like hip-hop, for all its vigor, emotion and sheer dope style, was on the verge of buckling under its own weight. But as always, off in the distance there was still the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Wu's 1994 debut album, "Enter the 36 Chambers," was a hip-hop masterpiece. On it, the world was introduced to the nine Staten-Island-born-and-bred Wu-Tang members, and the brilliance of the Wu-Tang metaphor -- grisly ghetto life placed in the context of the ultra-violent world of kung fu movies. Each member of the group had a Bed-Stuy-meets-Bruce Lee moniker (RZA, GZA, "The Genius," Method Man, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, etc.). But more importantly, each attacked the mike with potent vocal styles and rich rapping vocabularies that managed to create a bristling, and aware, aural canvas. When all nine were clicking, which was often, the results sounded and felt surreal and exhilarating, like a '90s ghetto "Enter The Dragon." Expectations were high for the group's follow-up, especially because in the three years since that debut, practically all of the Wu's members had released acclaimed solo albums, and RZA, with work on his own and several other records, had emerged as one of the most talented producers in hip-hop.
So the question concerning "Wu-Tang Forever" is not just whether it was worth the wait, but whether it will be hip-hop's salvation. The answer is yes and no. Compared to most of the rap released in the past three years, the Wu's latest is as good as gets. There are no odes to the holy triptych of DKNY, Versace and Moet. There's very little juvenile dissing of rival MCs, or mass shout-outs of props for props sake. The rhyming is frenetic and sophisticated, politically aware, if not always profound. (Like most hip-hop artists, the Wu pay the usual lip service to God/Allah, the 5 percent nation of Islam and their own ubiquitous talents.)
Each Wu member seems to have matured, particularly Raekwon and Ghostface Killah (who is emerging as one of rap's few strong and sensitive types), while the group as a whole raps with the collective confidence of a confirmed supergroup. And RZA's production is stellar. The first track on disc one, "Reunited," is an example of the Wu in full effect, as each member comes on strong lyrically over a hip-hop beat propelled by a braying violin. The first disc is in fact the stronger of the two, delivering some of RZA's best production work to date (most notably with the tweaked-out bass of "Severe Punishment" and the tricky break-beat of "As High As Wu-Tang Get.")
The problem with "Wu-Tang Forever" is that at times -- particularly on the second disc -- it seems to go on forever. By releasing a double CD, the Wu continue a dubious recent trend in hip-hop (see both Biggie and Tupac's final records). Had they simply released the 14 or 15 best tracks on one CD they would have had a much tighter, more enjoyable record. Instead, by the middle of disc two, many of their rhymes and ideas seem tired.
And overall, the record lacks some of the intangible punch that rippled through their debut. On "36 Chambers" the group seemed to howl and flex with raw instinct -- think early Public Enemy, NWA or, for that matter, Nirvana. There is no denying the group's ferocious talent, or the album's bright spots. But it only flirts with salvation, something that -- as usual -- will require more waiting.