by: Maggie Sachson
Twenty Years after its release Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever remains a triumphant exemplar of the almighty power of The Wu-Tang Clan…
History has taught us that not only are double LPs in hip-hop an ambitious undertaking, but they routinely fall short in fully appeasing their fans, with complaints of several songs too many, an unnecessary amount of skits, and overzealous guest appearances. Tupac ((All Eyez on Me.)), Biggie ((Life After Death.)), Bone Thugs-N-Harmony ((The Art of War.)), and E-40 ((The Element of Surprise.)), among others, all released double LPs in the late ‘90s, a fad of sorts at the time, and while perhaps housing some bangers, most listeners agreed that those double LPs could have been condensed into one solid album, where no turn of the tape or change of disc was needed ((As GZA put it on “As High as Wu-Tang Get,” “Yo, too many songs / weak rhymes that’s mad long / Make it brief son – half short and twice strong.”)).
There is always one, however, that breaks the mold.
Wu-Tang Clan’s 1997 double LP, Wu-Tang Forever, their second studio album, was released at a time when hip-hop began its foray into the commercial, with sing-songy refrains, primary school rhymes, flashy teeth performers in flamboyant clothing, and the excessive videos that went with them. It was all a step away from the “ghetto editorial” that the ‘90s hip-hop community was used to. At the time, one could have wondered if Wu-Tang’s sophomore release would follow this cookie cutter path of hip-hop commercialization, or as RZA, the founder of the Wu-Tang Clan, coins it on the second album’s intro, “R&B – Rap and Bullshit.” However, follow the fold the Wu-Tang Clan did not, as throughout the album’s twenty-seven tracks ((Two of which are skits.)), The Clan remains true to their roots and style. Or as RZA explains on the intro to Wu-Tang Forever’s second disc: “Fuck that this is MCin’ right here. This is hip-hop. Wu-Tang gonna bring it to you in the purest form. This is true hip-hop you listening to right here.”
After dropping their monumental and critically acclaimed debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan as a whole took a hiatus, allowing listeners the opportunity to become more familiar with the individual styles, flow, and voices of the its members on a more visceral level. On albums such as Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, Gza’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Method Man’s Tical, each member of the famed Clan was afforded an opportunity to shine on their own and recount their personal story. After four years of inactivity, the Wu-Tang Clan regrouped to their original nine members and released a musically coherent album worthy of much more praise than it received. Was it as on point and ground breaking as their first album? No, but Wu-Tang Forever didn’t have to be, as The Clan was already a firmly established act, and what the reunited Wu dropped was a progressive and more mature album than their debut. Wu-Tang Forever proved Wu-Tang were still decidedly in the game, and were repping their Shaolin style, no matter what type of pressure there may have been from the outside to conform.
For all intents and purposes, Wu-Tang Forever is RZA’s album, much like the concept and flow of the Wu-Tang Clan overall. The double LP is all his brainchild, and what he crafts with this album is a symphony of the streets, with lessons provided for the masses. With Wu-Tang Forever, RZA utilizes the two discs as a platform to showcase his creative and intricate beats, and the album was also an opportunity for RZA to display that he is entirely sound lyrically, his talents well beyond being just the man behind the beats for the group. As a known Five Percenter, many of RZA’s lyrics focus on the ideals of the movement, but the Ruler Zig Zag Zig Allah, also makes references to kung fu, pop culture, history, comic books, and tales from the 160 in his rhymes. One of his finest verses are on disc one’s “Reunited,” which serves as an ideal opener to the adventure which ensues. “How can I put it? Life is like video footage / Hard to edit, directors, that never understood it / I’m too impulsive, my deadly corrosive dosage / Attack when you least notice through explosive postage / I don’t play, the rap souffle saute for the day / Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig A, Leg Leg Arm Head / Spread like plague,” RZA spits over perfectly polished soundscapes. RZA’s production on Wu-Tang Forever certainly displayed similarities to Enter the Wu-Tang, yet there is a heightening of complexity that exists. This self-taught genius, who sold newspapers and pawned stolen objects to buy his equipment, has been a source of inspiration for many producers in the ‘90s and beyond. RZA’s technique of speeding up and/or slowing down samples from classic R&B or soul tracks, such as he did with King Floyd’s “Please Don’t Leave me Lonely” on Wu-Tang Forever’s “For Heaven’s Sake,” has certainly been emulated by producers such as Kanye West and Just Blaze, just to name a few.
Beyond RZA, Wu-Tang Forever allowed each member to bring their refined, maturated, and unique personality back into the fold of the collective. In comparison to 36 Chambers, all nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan had evolved lyrically, and this is exemplified in the refinement of skill and ability of U-God, who throughout the album exhibits a much smoother flow while dropping tightly wound, intense rhymes. Like the kung fu character from which he gets one of his aliases, Golden Arms slays without any weapons needed and on the song “Heaterz,” we see in stunning clarity deeply thought out analogies and succinct word combinations which highlight U-God’s signature style (“The Jeffrey Dahmer, Notre Dame-r sing the strongest / Brute force bulletthole straight through your chorus / Shank you with the think tank, harmony cake cut / A can of ass-whoopin, flurry shake break, you fucks / Struck, love crooks, why for lying hooks / Chef cocaine hook, a marvelous book / This deathbed doctrine, paper for the youth / What remains, a saber toothed tiger in the booth”).
Masta Killah, as always, brings a soft-spoken and methodical style of rhyming and storytelling to Wu-Tang Forever, which is a striking contrast to the styles and speed of other Wu-Tang members, like Inspectah Deck. Often referring to his “lessons,” Wu-Tang’s high chief, Jamel Irief, gives listeners harrowing anecdotes of the streets as seen through his eyes, and as felt with his heart. The best display of his talents has to be on the track “A Better Tomorrow,” a song with a message similar to the Wu-Tang classic “C.R.E.A.M.“ In it he spits, “Fifth brothers been slain from hails of gunfire / It lightly begins to rain screams of terror are hidden by the passing trains / This can’t be little Hussein, his uncle cried / As he drops to his nephew’s side, holding his cane / Just give me a name, of who has inflicted this / bitter sickness, and left us to witness,” exposing with deeply affecting imagery the horrors of the streets, and connecting the listener in a visceral way to the body counts that often mount in inner cities.
The raspy, quick-witted Method Man roars on Wu-Tang Forever with confidence and swagger after going Platinum with his solo effort, Tical, in 1993. The godfather of ‘keeping it real,’ Iron Lung’s musical style is raw and uncut, yet simultaneously smooth and playful. On Wu-Tang Forever, Johnny Blaze drops a slew of versatile and hard hitting verses, rife with slick wordplay and varying tempos in his recognizable baritone voice. His opening verse on “Visionz,” where he barks “Apocalypse Now / Mind over matter next batter be Tical / Put it on a platter how much uncut / Raw shit we dealin’ wit, murder track what / Slang killin’ it, touched/ You feelin’ it, in your bloodstream / Deadly venomous elixir / Hammer like Sledge that be Sister” is absolutely unforgettable, and on the track “Cash Still Rules / Scary Hours,” Meth drops one of the most nostalgic and brutally honest rhymes that can be found on Wu-Tang Forever, expounding upon tales from his youth in the Park Hill Projects from which he hails (“I remember stickin’ fiends at the one-six-ooh / When we was starvin’, duckin’ five-oh, payin’ ‘em dues / Times is hard in the slums I’m from, they got us barred in / We warrin’ and cage dodgin’, rippin’ and robbin’/ Got the NARC sabotagin’, slippin’ cracks in/ Your camoflougin’, now you snitchin’ on the squadron / That’s somethin niggas can’t pardon.”). Throughout Wu-Tang Forever, Meth continues to live up to the definitive statement he made on Enter the Wu-Tang: “It’s like mad different methods to the way I do my shit.” ((On the track “Intermission.”))
GZA continues to shine as the sage, or the group’s elder statesman, on Wu-Tang Forever, with his impressively extensive vocabulary and profoundly insightful wisdom. It comes as no surprise that GZA taught his cousin RZA to MC when they were teenagers, and from there RZA became one of the founding members of Wu. Without sounding too pompous, GZA looks out for his own by gloating about the overall strength of the group, and rightfully so. On “Severe Punishment” listeners experience GZA’s sense of pride in the nine lyricists that make up the Wu-Tang Clan, as he savagely yet elegantly talks to competitors, “This Wu shit be hard to kill and full blown / Rhymes filtered through the net before words hit the chrome / Pro tools editing tracks that’s rough / Cause a jam without a live MC isn’t enough / So we attack this, and grab all within reach / Throw a scrap back to niggaz – perfect your own speech / Shit is copper, it ain’t worth the mic stands used by backup singers in Atlantic City bands.” GZA’s wisdom is unparalleled within the Clan, and throughout the genre of hip-hop, and clearly was expanding at the time of Wu-Tang Forever’s release.
Perhaps not as prominent on Wu-Tang Forever as his fans would have liked, Ol’ Dirty Bastard still shines in his quirky, and dare-I-say “dirty,” fashion. Although he only has three verses, one chorus, and one intro on the entire album, he is one of three members who does have a solo track on the album, and it just so happens to be ODB at his dirtiest. “Dog Shit” is basically Dirty’s ode to sex, a track where he isn’t just boasting about sexual conquests, but also acting as a sort of comic relief for the album, and reminding fans of what is so lovable about ODB’s erratic outbursts and colorful lyrics. Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, the founders of the Parents Music Resource Center, created to police song lyrics in the 80s, certainly would have had a field day with these graphic and gritty lyrics, although for fans, this was just ODB being ODB: “Callin’ me a dog, well leave a dog alone / Cause nothin’ can stop me from buryin’ my bones / in the backyard, of someone else’s house / Ol’ Dirt Dog, but I’m not dog out / Here comes Rover, sniffin’ at your ass / But pardon me bitch, as I shit on your grass / That means hoe, you been shit-ted on! / I’m not the first dog that’s shitted on your lawn.” Maybe Method Man was right, there truly is no father to ODP’s style. R.I.P. Dirty.
The incomparable tandem of Raekwon the Chef and Ghostface Killah step onto each track of Wu-Tang Forever with guns blazing. Chef and Ghost’s chemistry has always been awe-inspiring, and this energetic duo’s verses on the album are beautifully aggressive yet serenely poetic hip-hop. On “The MGM,” a smooth, violin-laced beat complete with boxing ring bells produced by True Master, Raekwon and Ghost go back and forth, much like throwing punches in a boxing match, recounting an anecdotal retelling of the night of the Whitaker versus Chavez welterweight fight from the early 90s, inclusive of the fashion of the times, celebrity sightings, the dude with the piece in his pants, and of course, the fight. The duo also close out Wu-Tang Forever’s commercially successful “Triumph,” a track where Rae and Ghost’s lyrical swordplay to close the track erupts like an explosion at a firework factory after the meticulous and slower flows of GZA and Masta Killa that preceded it. In his book, The Wu-Tang Manual, RZA makes note of one of Ghostface’s verses on Wu-Tang Forever, hailing his turn on “Impossible” as the greatest Wu-Tang verse of all time. Extremely high, but justified, praise coming from a talent like RZA.
When it comes to underrated MCs in the game, Inspectah Deck is high up on the list. Perhaps not as in your face or charismatic as some members of the Wu, Deck’s added value to the group as a whole should not be brushed aside. His verses are never anything short of impressive, with his vast vocabulary, a penchant for razor sharp internal rhymes ((“Under key flock, it’s like b-block and E-glocks / you’re ill, your trail end thoughts are frail / I strike the cypher, and let one survive to tell the tale / Of my state of grace, I raise the stakes on snakes / Knock ‘em off like the big eights for takin’ up space.”)) and a cadence and flow which, to any listener, seems almost impossible to emulate. The stock of any track featuring the Rebel INS increases astronomically, and his talent can not be denied. To many, Deck has bragging rights for the best verse on the entire Wu-Tang Forever double album, with the opening ball of fire on the album’s first single, “Triumph.” And although that verse is inimitable, his skill and lyrical warfare are just as superhuman on “For Heaven’s Sake,” as Deck literally sounds like he’s floating across RZA’s string laced production (“I glide like hovercrafts on the everglades / Boom master with the faster blade, track slasher / Manufacturer poems to microphones / Limited edition composition spark fiction / Nonfiction, the calm bomb, keep your arms distance / Zero tolerance / dominant intelligence.”). Deck should also get props for being the only other Wu member besides RZA who produced a track on the double LP, with the ominous, deep-aced piano backed “Visionz.” Spreading knowledge the Wu way with a touch of relentless bravado, Inspectah Deck is effortless and intelligent — he truly does bomb atomically.
Wu-Tang Forever remains undoubtedly one of hip-hop’s most underrated and blatantly underappreciated albums. To many, it felt unfocused and indulgent due to its length, and disjunctive due to the collection of proven and beloved rap egos contending to get their bars in edgewise. But I tend to look at the album in another way, and the word that comes to mind is “sprawling.” Bouncing from sex-fueled bangers (“The Projects,” “Maria”) to uplifting and defiantly socially conscious tracks (“A Better Tomorrow,” “Impossible”) to all time classics that exhibit the almighty power of Wu when their might is combined (“Triumph,” “It’s Yourz”), Wu-Tang Forever exhibits a collective that was able to leave no stone unturned in the bedrock of hip-hop, and in this way offered a little something for every brand of hip-hop junkie. With stout and utterly polished production by RZA, and an astonishing display of lyricism by the entire crew, Wu-Tang Forever was worth the four year wait between albums, especially for the Wu-Tang faithful who were waiting with bated breath for this reunion. With twenty years of hindsight, it is so easy to look back and understand why Wu-Tang Forever didn’t fully get the love it deserved, but it is even easier to fully realize how outstanding of a piece of art it truly was. And now, with the gift of hindsight, it is also easy to make the argument that Wu-Tang Forever is the best hip-hop double album ever released. Period.