Has there ever been another group in the history of popular music that's produced more high-quality solo projects from its members than the Wu-Tang Clan? You might be tempted to say The Beatles, but you'd be wrong.
When it comes to having strength in numbers, the Wu have the boys from Liverpool beat.
Had the Wu-Tang Clan recorded Enter the Wu-Tang and immediately disbanded, they would still have gone down in rap history for producing one of the greatest posse albums of all time. But not only did they bring us 36 chambers of grimy, head-chopping lyrical greatness, they also went on to create a huge run of solo albums that stands up to (and in some cases surpasses) their best work as a group.
You can't say that about The Beatles.
On their own, the Fab Four created strong solo albums that are worthwhile additions to the pop music canon. But ask yourself this: Do any of their individual albums surpass their work as The Beatles? Or even equal it? Do you know anyone who'd choose to ride or die for John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band over Revolver? Or say “Screw Abbey Road, let's listen to Ram again"?
The Wu-Tang is another story.
Solo albums like GZA's Liquid Swords, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Ghostface's Supreme Clientele are such tightly constructed, all-killer-no-filler affairs that they can be held up to Enter the Wu-Tang as equals. Members like Method Man and ODB put out solid records on their own, and released singles that both charted higher and left a deeper impression on the pop landscape than anything the Wu put out in their collective prime. Even second-string members like Inspectah Deck have put out solo records that put most other rappers' work to shame.
When it comes down to the question of who's the most consistent member of the group, time has been most
kind to Raekwon the Chef. Currently the most alienated member of the group due to his clashes with RZA over the Clan's musical direction, Raekwon has carved out a spot for himself in the group's legacy as Mr. Reliable.
Compare Rae to the Wu's other two solo heavy-hitters: GZA and Ghostface.
GZA's Liquid Swords is up there with Rae's Cuban Linx as a contender for all-time best Wu album. GZA's work is as intense and humorless as his persona: His songs are obsessed with obtaining and displaying lyrical mastery. GZA is like an ascetic warrior monk perfecting his technique. He's too busy dropping bars about chess and chopping necks to record sex jams or talk about smoking blunts. That devotion to craft is perhaps why his solo output is so small compared to the other members The man sweats over syllables the way most of us sweat over our taxes. It also makes his work an exhausting listen. As incredible a piece of music Liquid Swords is, it's an album so heavy that no light can escape from it.
Ghostface, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. A gifted MC, storyteller, and clever writer, Ghostface has created some of the Wu's best solo work. But his problem is that he's too prolific. He's the Stephen King of Staten Island rap. For every classic LP he drops like Fishscale, he releases a headscratcher like Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry. It can be as hard to keep up with the Iron Man's many collaborations, solo records, and one-off concept albums as it is to follow some of his motor-mouth flows.
Position Rae between the two big G's of Wu-Tang and you've got your Goldilocks rapper.
He's as capable an MC as Ghost and GZA, but often gets short-changed because he doesn't spazz out on the mic like the former or sound like he's going to murder it like the latter. GZA is ice cold, Ghostface is a boiling tea kettle, and Raekwon just simmers on tracks. It's one of the reasons why he and Ghostface make such a killer tag team. They're like De Niro and Pesci in a Scorsese flick: Rae is De Niro, the cool seen-it-all schemer; Ghost is the Pesci hothead, seconds away from stabbing someone in the neck with a pen.
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In addition to dropping a sequel to Cuban Linx that knocks just as fiercely as the old record, he's released several other solo LPs that show he's not trying to rest on his laurels. Consider the record he dropped this year, The Wild. It's his first solo album with no other Wu members on it. Raekwon's an old dog in rap years, but he sounds as hungry as a young pup when he's rapping on top of The Wild's '70s soul samples. He tries on new flows and still snarls like he has something to prove. Not many rappers who've been around as long as Raekwon make the effort to experiment with their craft, but he's still playing with different deliveries and styles. He sounds restless in a way that no other Wu member does (with the exception of his mercurial tag team partner, who doesn't sound like he can be anything but restless).
Is it as good as Cuban Linx or that first Wu-Tang album? No ... but it sounds like it's trying to be. And that's why it's never a good idea to count Raekwon the Chef out. Who knows what kind of classics he can still cook up?
Raekwon will be performing on Wednesday, June 14, at Livewire in Scottsdale.