Fact: Wu are the apex of rap, or, as RZA always says "hip-hop in its purest form". All the interviews, videos, albums, the aesthetics, the mythology, the universal appeal, the fact that they're both a group and an assembly of solo stars, Wu-Tang Clan is the embodiment of all things hip-hop. Coincidentally, when they're off their game, so is the majority of the art form.
I thought it fitting, with the subdued level of anticipation for 8 Diagrams coming in December and the always prevalent geek-level discussion about the Wu, to talk about the song that made me a fan, since I was really poppy until around 14 or 15 and liked almost everything that got played on MTV for a while and wasn't really interested in checking for albums until late in junior high.
I focus on this song, of the final years of Wu's visibility as a group over "Gravel Pit", "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)", and the amazing "I Can't Go To Sleep" because, for one, its fucking ill. Two, its the only one of those four singles without a hook, which is still a big accomplishment to have this long ass grimy hardcore rap track with 9 dudes spitting and no hook be a big radio and MTV hit. Plus, Wu-Tang Forever pushed like 8 mil.
Now, besides how unorthodox it is as a single, its an amazing example of subtlety in songwriting and arranging and how to approach a pop song. First off, Deck's verse, which pretty much ruins the song for the rest of the Wu, with only 4 verses coming even anywhere near the quality of INS' opening.
"I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies
and hypotheses can't define how I be droppin these
mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits
tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics
I inspect view through the future see millenium
Killa Beez sold fifty gold sixty platinum
Shackling the masses with drastic rap tactics
Graphic displays melt the steel like blacksmiths
Black Wu jackets Queen Beez ease the guns in
Rumblin patrolmen tear gas laced the function
Heads by the score take flight incite a war
Chicks hit the floor, die-hard fans demand more
Behold the bold soldier, control the globe slowly
Proceeds to blow swingin swords like Shinobi
Stomp grounds I pound footprints in solid rock
Wu got it locked, performin' live on your hottest block"
Even recited acapella, the cadence and bounce of his verse is ridiculous. Its probably one of my favorites of all time, along with a bunch of stuff from Ready To Die, "Hit Em Up", and AZ's verse on "Life's a Bitch". Judging by how RZA chooses the cats to lace his tracks based on who makes the hottest rhymes for it (good in-house quality control, which explains why U-God is so scarce on albums...) at the moment, I can definitely imagine the rest of the Wu being both wowed and frustrated by Deck's verse, which alone makes an argument for checking his solo records. Plus, he pretty much wrecks the much more even, quality wise, "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)". Dude's flow is on point, period.
At this point in the song, shit is wrecked. The gauntlet is laid, and interestingly enough, whoever survives without sucking implies the caste structure of the Wu. Example, the first stars of the Clan were ODB, Meth, and Rae, and the perception was Meth was the best. Unfortunately, Meth was just the first one to be fully developed as an MC, not counting GZA who is always on some crazy meditative 43-year-old man shit that never fails. Seriously, the guy is almost creepily detached and wise-sounding. Whereas RZA pretends to know what he's talking about, GZA seems to know just about everything. But poor, poor Meth got burned out, and his only good album (Tical 2000) got shitted on by most rap fans. The issue with Meth has always been, since "Method Man", that along with Ghost, he has the best flow in the Wu, but as opposed to Ghost, never really says anything good lyrically. Its not as if Meth's lyrics are terrible, they aren't most of the time. The issue is his verses have no endurance, they fall apart halfway through and he isn't very interesting most of the time. It reminds me of watching "Method Man" in 2004 and going "wow...uh...most of his verses were awful". So its fitting that he's the first to be fed to the wolves on the track and sort of put him in his place as a good and charismatic rapper, but nothing more.
So, Wu went through three phases of caste in the 15 or so year existence of the group. Between the first album, first phase solo releases and second album, it went:
Top Tier: Gza Rza ODB Meth
Second Tier: Raekwon Ghost InspectahDeck
Weed Carriers/Fill-Ins:MastaKilla U-God
From Wu-Tang Forever to the second round of solo releases (the end of RZA's 5 year plan), it looks like this:
Top Tier: Rza ODB Gza Ghost
Second Tier:Meth Raekwon Inspectah Deck
Weed Carriers/Fill-ins:MastaKilla U-God
And you could argue that at the moment its:
Top Tier: Ghost Gza Rza(more for behind the scenes than rapping)
Weed Carriers/Fill-Ins: Everyone else
So with Meth's underwhelming bars, there's less tension and the next verse will seem really good, in theory. The pressure is off, and Meth took the bullet and caught a Kennedy. Which is lucky for Cappadonna, because he sucks and his breezy, unobtrusive verse passes by like a pallet cleanser. After listening to this song a lot lately, I noticed how the effect of so many disparate styles and rappers affects the feeling and flow of the song. As opposed to a sonic dynamic, the same loop rocks through the song and the dynamic of the song is retained in the difference between all the members of the group, which is an interesting occurrence that I don't think could be intentionally replicated. However, there is a sense of something like parts or a suite as after the first third, ODB (where the fuck was he to make such a weird out-of-touch, rushed sounding adlib?) comes in with his Wu hype, and then the beat's second loop, the repeating vocal riff over strings starts for U-God's verse. Not really that great in the scheme of Wu-Tang as an MC, but he drops a great verse in that fragment sentence flow of his where he seems to break everything into measured spaces.
Next up, RZA comes on and gets on his RZA shit. Besides being the founder, leader, and producer for Wu (and oddly enough, part of one of the two families within Wu, as he's cousins to GZA and ODB and Rae and Ghost are half-brothers), he's also fucking weird as an MC. All these things keep him in the top tier of Wu constantly, and I quickly grew to love how he's purposefully off beat. He can rap, but he tends to just fucking say "Fuck it" and throw in as much consonance, assonance, and garbled rhymes as he can and just go a beat or so over the snare, making his last words occupy an awkward aural space of inherited importance and putting emphasis on everything. And RZA's verses are just always so cool...I don't know what it is about him and ODB, but they're always wildin out on tracks. Plus, he wore wings in the video and comes up with great aesthetics. Seriously, the whole egomaniacal god-like nature of the "Triumph" clip is perfect.
So RZA drops the second good post-INS verse, which we will now refer to as the "post-9/11" verse. Next up, GZA, who never falters, so we move on to Masta Killa. Now, on the whole idea of dynamics and pacing in a rap song, particularly this, what I would hate on any other track worked perfectly as Masta Killa's asshole ruminations about pretentious 5% bullshit (seriously, he reeks of arrogance on here. At least when GZA invokes a deity or elder perspective, he's LIKABLE). Plus, he pretty much doesn't flow at all for his verse, he talks on beat almost like he's giving a speech, which both acts as a good twin for GZA and buffer for RZA's recklessness while putting a second dramatic peak to the song. It almost sounds like the Wu manifesto, which makes it real interesting, especially in light of friction between Ghost and the rest of the Wu of late, when Ghost starts his verse with "Yo, FUCK THAT". I always laugh when I hear that, because it comes in grimy and dismissive , razing all the haughtiness of the Masta Killa verse in just a few words.Predictably, since until Supreme Clientele they were musically inseparable, Ghost and Raekwon end the song and video together, straying from everyone else on the track by strictly keeping to hood themes and avoiding any abstraction or overt 5% prophetic shit-talking. And of everyone in the group, the two were always the best at crime talk, anyway.
It's interesting that the last section of the song is thematically completely different from the rest, seeing as in reference to how some of the Wu gave B.I.G shit around Ready To Die, Method said something along the lines of "That's just Ghost and Rae. They don't like anybody". Though everyone in the Wu seems to be cool with Cappadonna, RZA and ODB, it always felt like Ghost and Rae, for that time period, just liked themselves the most. Regardless, the two are, after GZA, the most lyrically complex in the group and succeeded in each dropping great verses, which was probably helped by going last. I also have to add that its odd that Ghost's vocals sound like they were done at a completely different time and place, based on the sound of the recording, which sort of again hint at how the two half-brothers are the loners of the group.
Its crazy to me to have 9 guys all spit 9 different flows and verses on a track with just one rhythm, which itself is a feat considering how most of the Wu rapped the same way on the first album, and that they avoided biting the flow utilized by Deck at the onset of the track. Its tough knowing he killed it and found the sweet spot, in a way, and that you have to work harder to keep your individuality all the while being inspired.
Now, considering the first four records, it'd be interesting if there ends up being a classic group cut on 8 Diagrams. Fishscale's "9 Milli Bros." was decent, so hopefully they can improve upon that, but I doubt they'll be able to get anywhere near "Triumph" or "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)", the latter of which has one of the most ridiculous Ghostface verses of all time.
"The swift chancellor flex the white-gold tarantula..." -Raekwon