It's on. With its new, much-anticipated double-CD Wu-Tang Forever, the Wu-Tang Clan lands the first blow on two unfortunate trends that have saturated hip-hop over the past two years--crass materialism and studio gangsterism.
East and West Coast rappers have been more interested in $1,000 designer sweaters, gun-totin' and groupie-chasin' than developing lyrical skills and original beats. But the rap crews aren't the only ones to blame.
Part of it can be blamed on money-hungry, trend-chasin' recording execs, just looking to find the next Biggie or Tupac. The consequence is that every rap artist is afraid to be experimental. The Valley's radio stations may front like they play hip-hop, but you'll never hear any Wu material on KKFR-FM 92.3. Unfortunately, the only artists you'll hear on these stations are those who've jumped on the bandwagon of materialism. And this trend isn't a real reflection of hip-hop culture. A typical hip-hop song on the radio consists of: a) a recycled loop or beat from an old '70s song, b) bullshit subject matter, like expensive cars and champagne, and c) a catchy hook or chorus. Recording execs want a moneymaker, and this seems to be the formula. Use a popular beat like George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" and rap about how many n*ggas you "smoked this week."
That's how so-and-so did it. If he can go platinum, well, so can you, Clone MC. But don't throw out your Adidas Shelltops just yet, because Wu-Tang Forever will challenge the industry to change its money-hungry ways.
This album is strictly for the hip-hop purist. It's made for those who treasure its artistic sensibility, not just its tight beats. It's for those who can truly appreciate creativity and originality.
And, boy, the Wu comes with it.
All of the Wu-MCs come with witty, unpredictable, Yoo-Hoo styles on the new CD, and the beats on Prince Rakeem's "The RZA" are as surreal and dark as ever.
The main difference between Wu-Tang Forever and the group's 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is clearly the message. Yeah, there's still blunt talk and braggadocio, but this collection is more spiritual. Forever holds many references to Allah and 5 Percent ideology, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Followers of the 5 Percent Nation believe they represent the 5 percent of the people in the world who hold a special relationship with the creator. They believe that every action they perform on this Earth is designed to move them closer to Allah.
The first track on the new album, "Wu-Revolution," is a spoken-word poem about mental war and cleansing the mind of the four devils: lust, greed, hate and envy. It's a plea to black men and women to raise their consciousness and political awareness.
On "A Better Tomorrow," the RZA paints compelling metaphors for the American flag: "Inside my lab/I'm goin' mad/Took two drags off the blunts/And started breakin' down the flag/The blue is for the Crips/The red is for the Bloods/The White is for the cops/And the stars come from the clubs/Or the slugs that ignite through the night/By the dawn's early light."
You won't find recycled P-Funk Grooves or Old School Rap Remakes here. The album is laced with apocalyptic soundscapes--dark chords and violin strings that are replete with horror-flick sound effects ("The City").
Meth has always been the most identifiable member, since he was the first to be featured on his own single, "Method Man," off the 36 Chambers album. He was also the first Wu-member to drop a solo project, Tical, which has sold nearly 1.5 million copies since it debuted in 1994. He's back with a vengeance here.
Ol' Dirty's back, too, and more hilarious than ever with his trademark drunken style. Ol' Dirty is a ball of spontaneity whose solo release, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, was the most experimental of all the Wu solo projects because Dirty did everything from singing to yelling. That album shone because of RZA's beats and Ol' Dirty's spontaneity. Ol' Dirty manages to sound even less sober this time, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. His voice is nowhere as dominating or decipherable as it was on his solo project. And with all the other Wu-MCs taking it to another level lyrically, Ol' Dirty actually takes a couple of steps back.
U-God gets the most-improved-MC award as he sounds effortless on "Black Shampoo." On Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), U-God wasn't as polished as the other MCs, but between the debut and this album, his mike skills have made a quantum leap.
The same could be said for the Wu-Tang Clan. It definitely takes it to another level on this one. To fully appreciate this album, you must play it loud. Play it often. Boom it in your system, but be careful. The album should have a disclaimer. Something like, "Caution: Will cause severe neck strain from constant nodding."
--A. Tacuma Roeback
I used to think that Freedy Johnston had a homely voice, that Freedy's recordings represented songcraft in its plainest form, unadorned by stylistic distraction. Then I listened to Ron Sexsmith.
This unassuming Toronto songwriter sounds just like the "Average Joe" he sings about on the new follow-up to his acclaimed 1995 debut. With help from producer Mitchell Froom, he takes a few tentative steps here toward full-bodied recording production, but this CD gets by on the durability of its songs and Sexsmith's ability to sing them. The overall effect is like finding a pearl in a brown paper bag.
Delivered with artless conviction, Sexsmith's songs feel more like offhand confessions and recollections than crafted compositions. His oddly moving voice--which occasionally suggests Boz Scaggs with a slight case of nasal congestion--proves most effective on the CD's centerpiece, "Strawberry Blonde," where Sexsmith heartbreakingly laments for a beautiful girl who lived around the corner from him when he was a child.
With the sparse narrative sense of a Raymond Carver, Sexsmith conveys the sadness of her childhood without pretending to understand the extent of her grief. Elsewhere, he unabashedly shows compassion for a forgotten child star and finds beauty behind the gates of a cemetery.
If Other Songs' sonic landscape at times seems a bit flat and pallid, it's just Sexsmith's way of keeping you focused on the defiant humanity and simple tunefulness that make this CD so affecting.