Looking back on 20 years of Wu-Tang Clan’s The W
Staten Island occupies a strange corner of New York City mythology that mirrors its physical isolation from the dazzling lights of Manhattan and the hardscrabble hipster colonizing of Brooklyn.
A borough of split-level suburban homes and orderly neighborhoods, the Island is often seen as the more family-centered and conservative corner of the city. But surreal pockets of darkness tend to dwell here as well, such as within abundant forests where abandoned mental health facilities and monasteries brim with urban legends of diabolical secrets. The lore of the Island is one of serial killers and dead mob informants, monolithic landfills and toxic waste dumps, and so it seems oddly fitting that the Island’s most legendary musical export comes courtesy of a group for whom a sense of mystery and shadow is stitched into their very existence.
That’s the inimitable Wu-Tang Clan, and in their mythos, Staten Island is ‘Shaolin’, a name inspired by vintage kung-fu cinema and indicative of their otherworldly trappings. The Clan’s always stood at the center of the hip-hop conversation while also continuing to linger outside of it, in the margins, only influencing as much as they ever choose to influence. In this way, they’ve become one of the most singular ingredients in the popular ascendance of the genre, an uncompromising and complex assembly of friends and relatives, oft shrouded in turmoil and gloom.
The Clan were devised in the late eighties by group mastermind RZA and his friend Ghostface Killah, who would become the group’s most naturally-skilled rapper and talent. Hanging around the Island’s notorious Stapleton Houses projects, they envisioned a collective built around a cultural framework of kung-fu movies, comic books, and Five Percent Nation lore. In their early year, the collective seemed to magnetically attract jaw-dropping local talent into its ranks, such as Method Man and Raekwon, and in 1993 their debut full-length, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) drastically reconfigured the hip-hop landscape, helping to usher in a second East Coast golden age. As classic solo projects began to trail in the debut’s wake (GZA’s Liquid Swords and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… among them), internal tension began to take its toll, and though 1997’s underrated double-album follow-up Wu-Tang Forever saw the Clan expanding and underlining its skills as a unit. By the time of 2000’s The W, the group was arguably better known as the springboard for some of rap’s most shockingly consistent artists than as a relevant and productive entity in its own right.
The W, the third full-length from the group, can seem strangely formless at times in comparison to their first two efforts–overcrowded with ill-fitting guest features and produced in a starkly lo-fi style that stands in sharp contrast to the widescreen panorama of Wu-Tang Forever. But its ‘transitional album’ feel does little to mute some of the group’s sharpest rhymes and most intriguing musical ideas to date. Though a few of the Clan’s members had vocally begun to chafe under RZA’s perfectionist leadership by the dawn of the new millennium, there’s less a sense of obligation and duty here than could be sensed at times on their previous album.
“Careful (Click, Click)” is a welcome return to some of the subterranean menace of 36 Chambers, featuring an absolute wrecker of a verse from perpetual Wu 10th wheel Cappadonna, while the curious choice of spotlighting unofficial compatriot Redman on “Redbull” is proof positive that his “unofficial” status should’ve long since been replaced with a call-up to full membership. It’s in these moments that The W reveals the Clan’s subtle attempts to move the conversation forward and remain musically curious over a decade into their career. Much of the rapping here is nimble and sure-footed, such as on classic posse cuts like “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” and “Gravel Pit”, while the blossoming backings of classic soul sampled on “Hollow Bones” and “I Can’t Go To Sleep” offer eerie counterpoint to rhymes woven of despair and desperation. The slow unraveling of “Jah World/Clap” provides a suitably mournful closing for an album that’s downcast and heart-aching, even by the Wu’s standards. It’s a powerful grace note.
VIDEO: Wu-Tang Clan “Gravel Pit”
Where The W slightly stumbles is with some of its guest features, of which there are far more than is usually the case for a Clan full-length. The Nas-featuring “Let My N****s Live” is admirably bleak and relentless, and driven by the album’s most compelling beat, but Snoop Dogg sounds a bit lost on “Conditioner”, a track which also features what would sadly turn out to be the last contribution from Clan co-founder Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who would sit out the following year’s inconsistent Iron Flag and die of an accidental cocaine and tramadol overdose in 2003. Busta Rhymes brings his usual manic energy on “The Monument”, but like Snoop he proves an ill-fit to the Clan’s less hyperkinetic, more contemplative style. Regardless, the risks taken with some of these feature choices as well as the musical varieties attempted here are to be commended, even if they don’t entirely “work” in practice.
Unfortunately, the Clan would never get this close to their early mastery again. 2001’s follow-up Iron Flag was notoriously messy and uneven, reflecting the inner upheaval that was beginning to eclipse the solidarity of vision on which they’d been founded. 2007’s 8 Diagrams was solid enough to generate “comeback” buzz, but nothing the Killa Bees have managed since has returned them to the zeitgeist of their earlier works. These days their relevance seems largely tied to Big Pharma vampire Martin Shkreli’s purchase of the lone extant copy of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin for a cool two million bucks. RZA and company deserve better, but little can dim their seismic impact on both hip-hop and contemporary music in general, both through the staggering influence of their first few full-lengths and the equally game-changing legacies of their best solo offerings. Alongside West Coast counterpart Dr. Dre, RZA alone is largely responsible for the daring, adventurous hip-hop production so commonplace today.
For many in NYC, Staten Island remains the loser stepchild of a borough it has always been, dismissed and ignored. But for many more, it’s forever Shaolin, home of hip-hop geniuses.