When asked about the Clan’s ultimate goal back in 1993, Raekwon answered simply: “Domination, baby”. And boy, did they get it. The following years saw the giant 9-legged spider laying its web all over the hip-hop industry; in different forms, under different names and on multiple recording labels. Yet always true to themselves and their vision. Only 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. were on the same page in terms of mass popularity and critical appreciation. More impressive is to realize that artistic leader RZA more or less had the whole thing planned – from the impact of the debut, to the solo works spreading over the labels and ultimately to the double album bookending the chapter on the grand scale it deserved.
That is all context, but The W is one of those albums that has to be judged within that. Because by 2000, nobody in the Clan had any reason or desire to create another 36 Chambers. Or another Wu-Tang Forever. RZA’s life-long search of and experimentation with sounds should speak volumes about the man’s progressive artistic attitude; and The W is just one of those times where he went and did something completely different from what fans were expecting. The main advantage is that the album has an identity of its own. As it is, it stands as yet another unique chapter in the Wu story. The disadvantage is that taking risks does not always lead to good results.
One of the first things that you’ll notice is the impressive list of guest appearances – trademark hip-hop names such as Nas, Snoop Dogg, Redman and Busta Rhymes add verses, while soul legend Isaac Hayes is featured singing instead of just being sampled. Well, he actually is sampled too – I Can’t Go to Sleep takes the mournful strings and guitar lines from Hayes’ Walk on By and matches them perfectly with RZA and Ghostface Killah’s so-called “crying flows”. Both rappers sound as if on the point of breaking down and the best thing about the track is its combination of the personal and the universal – surely they name-check all those figures that died tragically, but in the end it’s still more about how this makes them feel. The song builds up to those points where they both sound absolutely hysterical – a perfect vocal-instrumental climax, with Hayes’ chorus eventually working as a lullaby. One could argue that it’s all a bit too overdramatic for a hip-hop song and one could point to examples such as A Better Tomorrow and C.R.E.A.M., in which lyrics were equally emotional in their realness and their cold delivery. But hey, I told you this was different and as far as experimentation goes, I Can’t Go to Sleep is easily the album’s most interesting success.
The other guests’ contributions are simply not that remarkable – I mean, it’s not that they don’t do their shtick well enough, it’s just that most of the time it doesn’t feel that necessary. Method’s chemistry with Redman is undeniable, but hey, that’s why we got an album full of that the previous year. And Snoop is brought in to expand on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s last contribution to a Wu album – Conditioner, recorded and sent straight from prison – but can’t really do much with this half-baked idea.
When RZA experiments with the beats and song structures, the results are again rather mixed. Gravel Pit and Do You Really (Thang, Thang) are catchy enough, but these are the type of hooks that you’d hear on your FM-friendly hip-hop. Careful (Click, Click) is just annoying with its recurring percussion sounds (RZA really had a thing for percussion on this album, didn’t he?) and dumb chorus popping up just about every 4-5 lines. Much better is the funky Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off), where the shortness of the verses goes hand in hand with the dynamic beat. This is sort of like Triumph on speed.
All in all, The W marks the start of the group’s second era – an era where they would step back into the shadow and show up every couple of years with a product that doesn’t really have the importance and influence of their previous releases, but still manages to be interesting enough. The MCs don’t have that much left to prove anymore, but they still give consistent performances (with Deck being the best here, as far as I’m concerned) and RZA’s beats are still worthy of discussion on their own.
Categories: Album Reviews