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Wu-Tang Clan (and solo work)

Reviewed on this page:
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - 6 Feet Deep - Tical - Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... - Liquid Swords - Ironman - The Pick, The Sickle And The Shovel - Wu-Tang Forever - Heavy Mental - The Pillage - Sunz Of Man (The Last Shall Be First) - The Swarm - La The Darkman - RZA As Bobby Digital In Stereo - Tical 2000: Judgment Day - Wu-Chronicles - Beneath The Surface - Nigga Please - Uncontrolled Substance - Golden Arms Redemption - Immobilarity - Supreme Clientele - Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai - The W - The Yin And The Yang - The Genuine Article - Digital Bullet - Bulletproof Wallets - Iron Flag - The Trials And Tribulations Of Russell Jones - The Sting - Legend Of The Liquid Sword - Love Hell Or Right (Da Come Up) - Birth Of A Prince - The Pretty Toney Album - Bobby Digital Presents Northstar - Tical 0: The Prequel - No Said Date - Disciples Of The 36 Chambers: Chapter 1 - Grandmasters - FishScale - Afro Samurai: The Soundtrack - The Big Doe Rehab - 8 Diagrams - Wu-Tang Chamber Music - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II - Ghostdini, The Wizard Of Poetry - Wu-Massacre

Russell Jones, better known as Ol' Dirty Bastard, collapsed and died in a Manhattan recording studio on November 13, 2004, from a combination of cocaine and Tramadol.
You couldn't turn anywhere in the mid-90s without seeing someone from Wu-Tang, the nine- or ten-member hip hop confederation that put Staten Island on the musical map. They followed up their hit 1993 debut with five top-selling solo projects, and have made even more headlines with erratic and/or illegal behavior from members Ghostface Killah and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Their frenetic approach to rap is eye-opening, with lots of internal rhymes and images piling up so fast it's often impressionistic rather than linear. But perhaps the most important factor in the group's success is producer The RZA, who has a completely original approach to hip hop, making heavy, ominous tracks out of bizarrely incongruous elements like fiddles, fake strings, sped-up movie soundtracks - pretty much anything he can get his hands on - in addition to the usual keyboards, vocal samples and drum loops. On the downside, "quality control" appears to be the only phrase not in the Wu vocabulary, and the level of Wu-endorsed product varies.

In early 2005, RZA put out a book, The Wu-Tang Manual, which I promptly purchased and added to our book reviews page. The Clan's die-hard fans have mostly lost interest by now, and as a result the fan sites aren't what they used to be (5 Elements stopped updating, for one). Try Wu Forever.

The RZA (Robert Diggs, aka Prince Rakeem or Bobby Digital), Method Man (Clifford Smith), The GZA (Gary Grice, aka The Genius), Ol' Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones, aka ODB, Osirus and Big Baby Jesus), Masta Killer (Elgin Turner), Inspecta Deck (Jason Hunter, aka The Rebel INS), U-God (Lamont Hawkins), Raekwon (Corey Woods, aka The Chef), Ghostface Killa (Dennis Coles). Cappadonna (Darryl Hill) joined c. 1996.

Words From The Genius (The Genius: 1991)
A solo album from GZA, then known only as "The Genius." I think involvement by other Wu-Tang members is minimal to non-existent, though a 1994 reissue includes a track with RZA, "Pass The Bone." (DBW)

Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
At the time, when laid-back West Coast G-funk ruled, the manic energy of this release - a seemingly infinite number of different rappers pouring out hallucinatory imagery; denser backing tracks than was believed possible in the "all samples cleared" era - was shocking. Now that the group's innovations have been refined and copied so much, the disc doesn't pack quite the same punch. There are some wonderful eerie grooves ("Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber," "Protect Ya Neck"), first-rate rhyming ("Method Man"), and they're just about the only hip-hop act whose between-song skits are actually funny ("Clan In Da Front"). When they get serious, they can be devastating (the nostalgic "Can It Be All So Simple"). And with so much talent on hand, the record never has a chance to get dull: even the minor tracks hold your attention ("Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta F' Wit"). (DBW)

6 Feet Deep (Gravediggaz: 1994)
Right away, a side project: RZA plus Poetic, De La Soul's Prince Paul and Frukwan. It's ultraviolent in the horror style pioneered, I believe, by the Geto Boys - which is to say, it's like a rap version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plenty of murder and mayhem spiced with the occasional occult reference. The blood and guts preoccupation gets old real fast, but taken individually many of the tracks are effective, and the furiously paced, genuinely scary "Diary Of A Madman" is perhaps the masterpiece of the genre. That track is RZA's, but most of the disc is produced by Prince Paul, and he makes some interesting choices: the mellow soul groove of "1-800 SUICIDE" only makes the gleefully demented vocals more disturbing; the brief "Mommy, What's A Gravedigga?" makes good use of an obscure Patrice Rushen sample; the dense, wordless "Rest In Peace (Outro)" is fascinating. RZA does contribute the title track, which is so weirdly out of tune it sounds like a put-on, and the routine "Graveyard Chamber." You're unlikely to keep this in heavy rotation unless you're an Omen fan, and it's not like any other Wu-associated offering, but the witty, unpredictable rhyming and offbeat production make this a worth a listen... borrow it from a friend. (DBW)

Tical (Method Man: 1994)
First, the music: RZA's thick stew of samples, beats and found sounds is masterful throughout (title track, "I Get My Thang In Action"), as even the simpler tracks are powerful and original ("Sub Crazy"). Blue Raspberry's belted chorus on "Release Yo' Delf" (the first of her many appearances on backing vocals) and diva vocals on "Stimulation" are among the high points. As for Meth, I must be missing something: he's the most respected of all the Wu rappers, and his voice has a lot of tonal variety: he sounds so different from track to track - low-key and groggy on "Biscuits," forceful and focused on "I Get My Thang In Action," tender like LL on "All I Need" - you'll wonder if it's all the same person. But his rhymes are often obvious and cliché-filled - there's enough "y'know wh' I'm sayin'," "keepin' it real" and "represent" for five albums - and scattershot, without the intriguing pet themes of the other members. Thus, the most enjoyable track is probably "Mr. Sandman," with its profusion of guest rappers (RZA, Inspectah Deck, Street Thug and Carlton Fisk - no, not the ballplayer - who almost steals the show) - though Raekwon's guest appearance ("Meth Vs. Chef") is dull. Everything's produced by RZA, but 4th Disciple gets a co-producing credit for "Sub Crazy," and Meth gets one for "P.L.O. Style" (which has nothing to do with the P.L.O., if you're wondering). The remix version of "All I Need" (based on Ashford & Simpson's "You're All I Need To Get By") featuring Mary J. Blige was a major hit. Too bad it's not on the album, though there is a fine remix of the earlier Wu-Tang single "Method Man." (DBW)

Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Ol' Dirty Bastard: 1995)
ODB is the group's comic relief, a caricature of a self-absorbed, sex-obsessed rapper, and I had to wonder how he could carry a whole album. And indeed, the humorous interludes are hit and miss: "Intro" is hilariously over the top, but "Goin' Down" is just excessive. His rhymes walk the line between silly and just plain dumb, though more often than not his "try anything" delivery makes it work. More significantly, RZA is at his peak: catchy piano hooks, sound effects, unrecognizably brief snippets, and constantly shifting drum programming - the more bizarre or unmusical the sample, the better it works ("Baby C'Mon"). And the rest of the Clan drops by to provide some relief from the comic relief: Ghost Face Killer stands out on the powerhouse "Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane)"; Method Man and Raekwon beef up "Raw Hide"; too many rappers to list pop up on "Protect Ya Neck II The Zoo," including Dirty's brother, 12 O'Clock. Only a few tracks weren't created by RZA, and most of them are fun too - "Brooklyn Zoo," produced by ODB and True Master, with some of the best rhyming on the record - though the bonus track "Harlem World" (by Big Dore) and the lame joke "Drunk Game" (by ODB and Ethan Ryman) miss the target. It's an up and down ride, but worth checking out. (DBW)

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... (Raekwon: 1995)
From what I can tell, Raekwon is the group member most focused (lyrically, at any rate) on guns, violence and drug dealing - in other words, he often fits the "gangsta rapper" stereotype. There are even between-song skits of the group members portraying mafiosi, connected to a never-realized film to be called Wu-Gambinos. The RZA produced, arranged, engineered and mixed everything, but he went with a stripped-down, one or two sample-per-song groove that's not nearly as interesting as usual: outside of a couple of brilliant, unsettling tracks ("Rainy Dayz" featuring Blue Raspberry, the closing "Heaven & Hell"), in several ways this is a run of the mill hip hop record despite its classic status. Raekwon even finds time for some irritatingly stupid sexual ranting ("Ice Water," also featuring Cappadonna). Raekwon gets a lot of help from the rest of the Clan - Ghost Face appears on 12 of the 17 cuts, and everyone turns up on one track or another except ODB and U-God. But they mostly just go along for the ride (Meth's shot on "Wu-Gambinos" is an exception), and the same goes for the guest appearance by Nas on "Verbal Intercourse." As if the album weren't long enough already, the album includes a remix of "Can It Be All So Simple," and the CD-only bonus track is "North Star (Jewels)." (DBW)

Liquid Swords (Genius/GZA: 1995)
GZA's rap style is calm and confident, and he has a right to be: his rhymes are sharp, original and to the point, and when he digs into a theme, it's often devastating ("Cold World," which borrows the melody from Stevie Wonder's "Rocket Love"). Some of RZA's tunes (he produced everything here) have the simplicity of his work for Raekwon (title track), but they're never dull, largely because GZA's words and delivery are absorbing, and the guest appearances are used to better effect ("Duel Of The Iron Mic" featuring ODB, Deck, Masta Killa, and Dreddy Kruger). On other tracks, RZA wheels out his dense cacophonous approach, which can work wonders ("Gold"). Every single member of the group is on this one (Cappadonna hadn't joined yet), and so is Killah Priest, and this is about as good an introduction to Wu style as the group's debut. The CD version has a bonus track, "B.I.B.L.E.," that later turned up on Priest's solo album. (DBW)

Ironman (Ghostface Killa: 1996)
Ghostface's lines on Raekwon's album weren't extraordinary, but he makes up for it here, bursting out with complex wordplay and surprising humor - who else would compare himself and his girlfriend to Luke and Laura? - in the service of a generally positive vision ("Black Jesus"). But he doesn't hog the mike: he gives a lot of space to Raekwon (who does all the rhyming on "The Faster Blade"), and Cappadonna steals the show whenever he appears (he's hilarious on "Camay"). The lovely slow jam "All I Got Is You" is a tribute to his mother and growing up poor, with a moving guest appearance by Mary J. Blige; the flip side of that romanticism is a venomous tirade against a faithless lover ("Wildflower") that's all the more startling for its obvious sincerity. At times RZA seems strapped for ideas: "Daytona 500" is based on a loop previously used by Salt-N-Pepa, and there are more quotes from well known R&B tunes than usual (a rewrite of "Never Can Say Goodbye" opening Meth's guest shot "Box In Hand"; "260" recalls Al Green). Still, he comes up with more than his share of winners ("Winter Warz," "Iron Maiden"). True Master sneaks in one cut, "Fish." ODB and GZA are the only Clan members who don't turn up this time; the 90s lineup of 60s smooth soul outfit The Delfonics sings on "After The Smoke Is Clear." (DBW)

Wu-Tang Forever (1997)
After all the hit solo LPs, this release was hotly anticipated. It starts out brilliantly, with "Wu-Revolution," "Reunited" and "For Heavens Sake" all striking and memorable, but almost every track follows the same formula, and there's way more boasting about sexual performance than we needed to hear (ODB's extra-offensive "Dog Shit"). This time around, many of the best rhymes come from RZA himself ("Impossible"), but he farmed out some of the production chores, letting 4th Disciple have several tracks (the message tune "A Better Tomorrow"), while True Master produced "The M.G.M" and Deck produced his feature "Visionz." Presumably the two-disc format was required to give enough room for each of the superstar rappers (though most tracks feature four or five different group members, there are several one-artist showcases), but from the listener's perspective, it's overkill. On the other hand, everyone in the group comes across at their best in one spot or another, and practically every rhyme style and topic is covered somewhere, so it's a good starting point for getting to know the group. Poppa Wu, apparently the group's spiritual advisor or mentor or something, turns up on the opening number; and Tekitha appears on two tracks - Blue Raspberry is nowhere to be heard. Disc one is enhanced with a video game or some such. (DBW)

The Pick, The Sickle And The Shovel (Gravediggaz: 1997)
The second Gravediggaz release couldn't be more different from the first. The slasher flick antics are gone, and instead the lyrics are shockingly mature, reflective and often nostalgic ("Fairytalez," "Never Gonna Come Back," the eco-anthem "The Night The Earth Cried") - hip hop poetry at its finest. Instead of the Prince Paul and RZA show, there are more producers than a Chaka Khan record: each of the group members produces at least one track, plus Truemaster (who seems to spell his name differently on every release), 4th Disciple, Goldfinghaz and Darkim. The music is more relaxed and subtle than RZA's usual mix, with lots of keyboard washes and mellow horns ("Unexplained"), and it lacks that cathartic thump, but the album rewards careful listening more than most Wu efforts. Guests include 9th Prince, Shabazz the Disciple and the Sunz of Man, who liven up "Repentance Day." (DBW)

Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars (Killarmy: 1997)
Killarmy is Dom Pachino, Killa Sin, 9th Prince, Islord, and Barretta 9; guests include Masta Killa and Sunz of Man, and 4th Disciple and RZA produced. I have no idea who these guys are except that they're down with Wu-Tang. Boy, this is confusing. (DBW)

Heavy Mental (Killah Priest: 1998)
A peripheral Wu-Tang release, with production by 4th Disciple and guest appearances by several group members, but nothing from RZA. Killah Priest is a rarity among rappers: His lyrics are absolutely brilliant, with ingenious fast-paced rhymes and Biblical images creating a mystical mood (though his Black Israelite philosophy has disturbing antisemitic undertones), and even when he's just cutting down other rappers ("Fake MC's") he makes it sound cosmic. But he has no presence: he's so soft-spoken he almost fades into the background. The backing tracks are basic (simple drum loop, piano samples, snippets of female backing vocals), but would be servicable enough if he was a more commanding foreground presence. The tracks that really get your attention are the guest spots ("Cross My Heart" with Inspectah Deck and GZA, "If You Don't Know" with ODB) and a few cuts with noisier, more interesting music ("It's Over," title track - the only one Killah Priest produced). Otherwise, if you're paying close attention you'll be rewarded, but you may tune the record out. Aside from 4th Disciple, producers include True Master, Y Kim, John The Baptist and Nusrat Fatehy Ali Kahn. (DBW)

The Pillage (Cappadonna: 1998)
A pretty good record that got lost in the profusion of 1998 Wu releases. Cappadonna's a more straightforward storyteller than most of the Clan, and doesn't have the most distinctive presence, but his rapid-fire rhymes are intelligent and hard-hitting. The music is consistently catchy and exotic, and producer Tru Master deserves a lot of the credit. Though basically sticking with RZA's kitsch-funk blueprint, he comes up with interesting variations on "South Of The Border" (which uses everything but Mexican music), "Dart Throwing" (with Raekwon and Method Man) and the blistering "Supa Ninjaz," with an ingenious keyboard hook and guest shots from Method Man and U-God. RZA himself is in fine form: "Young Hearts" is a lovely ballad with a driving beat, and his Dragnet-meets-Nintendo "MCF" is a wonder. Goldfinghaz, Mathematics and 4th Disciple each produce a track or two as well. If you want the Wu sonic approach without all the mysticism and silly kung fu references, check this disc out. (DBW)

Sunz Of Man (The Last Shall Be First) (Sunz Of Man: 1998)
Another Wu auxiliary group, composed of Killah Priest, Prodigal Sunn, Hell Razah and 60 Sec. Assassin. This debut is pretty dull: lots of scattershot ranting over the ponderous grooves that have become a Wu-cliché at this point. I give them credit for trying to say something meaningful, but many of their rhymes are obvious ("Illusions") and there's just not much entertainment value. (I might rate them higher if I were interested in their black capitalist, borderline anti-Semitic perspective, but not by much.) The disc would be a washout if it weren't for a few tunes with brilliant backing tracks: RZA's "Tribulations," True Master's "Intellectuals" and 4th Disciple's moving "Not Promised Tomorrow." Matters are also improved by the lengthy guest list, which includes Meth, U-God, Masta Killa, Raekwon, True Master and Tekitha. However, "Shining Star," produced by Wyclef Jean and featuring Earth Wind & Fire, seems like a calculated attempt to produce a hit along the lines of "Ghetto Superstar," but it burned out without hitting the charts. A sign that RZA and company may be spreading themselves too thin. (DBW)

The Swarm (Wu-Tang Killer Bees: 1998)
Released the same day as the Sunz of Man disc (don't these folks ever worry about flooding the market?), this is a various artists compilation, including such obscure acts as A.I.G. and Black Knights Of The North Star. In many cases, the groups are just running the standard Wu-Tang sound into the ground, with chanted choruses and a slow beat supplemented with a laid-back piano loop (The Beggaz' "On The Strength," Sunz Of Man's "Concrete Jungle"), though Ruthless Bastards succeed by coming up with a really good chanted chorus and a really good laid-back piano loop ("Bastards"). Wu Syndicate's "Where Was Heaven" is a pleasant slow inspirational number recalling Ghostface Killah's "All I Got Is You," and Remedy's "Never Again" (later included on his
solo debut) is easily the best song about the Holocaust I've ever heard. Most of the original Clan is also on hand, and they contribute many of the album's best tracks: Inspectah Deck's self-produced "S.O.S.," "And Justice For All" by Bobby Digital (aka RZA) with Killarmy and Method Man. On the other hand, Ghostface's "Cobra Clutch" is spoiled by prominent, distracting sampled screams. Cappadonna and Ghostface's "'97 Mentality" has an obvious, repetitive hook, but the rhymes are so fast and clever it works anyway. RZA produced five tracks, including the fine "Co-Defendant" by Shyheim featuring Hell Raiza. The disc is uneven: if you listen to all the weak tracks you'll get bored, but there's enough good stuff to make it worth checking out if you find it cheap. (DBW)

Dirty Weaponry (Killarmy: 1998)
Produced by 4th Disciple and Mathematics. (DBW)

Heist Of The Century (La The Darkman: 1998)
La is your basic middle-of-the-pack rapper, roughly mediocre in all the relevant categories: vocal presence, flow, subject matter, rhyme originality and complexity. The bulk of the disc was produced by Carlos "Six July" Broady, and he tends to ride one loop for the whole track ("City Lights"), but at least he shows some flair for creating loops: toy keyboards playing a neoclassical theme ("Shine"), etc. RZA's one contribution is a letdown, working a morose string loop so hard it approaches self-parody ("Polluted Wisdom"); 4th Disciple produced three tracks, including the record's one highlight, "Element Of Surprise" - clashing Mantovani strings and guitar licks, plus guest shots from U-God and Ghostface Killah. Muggs produced the title track, but the brooding piano and string lament's debt to RZA is clear. Vocalist Tekitha is wasted on yet another hip hop remake of the Crusaders' "Street Life"; other guests include Featuring Raekwon, Masta Killah, 12 O'Clock, Maia Campbell, Shottie Screwface, DJ Rodgers, Jr., Havoc and Puff (no, not Puff Daddy). Although there are no horrendous tracks, there's also little of the unique energy that characterizes most Wu-Tang releases, and there's no strong argument for picking this up unless you're a Wu completist. (DBW)

RZA As Bobby Digital In Stereo (RZA: 1998)
RZA's first solo album, and he's in character throughout as trash talkin', lady killin' cartoon superhero Bobby Digital. The record disappointed a lot of people, but if you don't expect it to be a landmark in hip hop history, it's a lot of fun: his rhymes are fast and frequently funny ("B.O.B.B.Y."), the backing tracks are engaging though not as edgy as most of his Wu work ("Mantis," "Kiss Of A Black Widow" which samples Portishead), and there are guest shots from everyone in the extended Wu-Tang family. Plus, his heretofore concealed R&B groove skills are impressive: check out "Love Jones" (featuring Angel Cake), or the three link tracks featuring female seductions ("Slow Grind African," "Slow Grind French," "Slow Grind Italian"). The disc ends with four bonus tracks with RZA (as himself) taking on more serious subjects - "Project Talk," "Daily Routine" - just to let you know there's more to him than fluff. But there's nothing wrong with fluff if it's entertaining, and most of the time, this disc is. (DBW)

Tical 2000: Judgement Day (Method Man: 1998)
The reverse of Meth's debut: this time his lyrics and delivery are focused and enjoyable, but the production and backing tracks are not so hot. He starts off on the wrong foot, with the same vague apocalyptic Y2K rumblings a zillion other rappers have resorted to ("Judgment Day"), and it's hit or miss after that. RZA's contributions are up to standard: "Perfect World," with a devastating rant from Meth; the samplefest "Retro Godfather"; and especially "Suspect Chin Music" featuring Streetlife, certainly the album's best track. There are other strong points, too: 4th Disciple's "Shaolin What" is a daring mix of pounding beat and improvised piano; Deck's "Spazzola" (also featuring Raekwon, Masta Killa, Streetlife and Killer Sin) is a vintage head-bobber; the Redman collaboration "Big Dogs" (produced by Erick Sermon); the ambivalent love song "Break Ups 2 Make Ups" (featuring D'Angelo). But the record gets lost among too many interlude skits (only Chris Rock's is funny), too many producers and too many guest appearances, some of which seem forced (Left Eye on "Cradle Rock," Janet Jackson on "Message From Penny"). Plus an overdose of Wu production gimmicks - "Snuffed Out," "Elements" - and a hearty helping of blah material: "Party Crasher," "Torture." (DBW)

Wu-Chronicles (Various Artists: 1999)
A compilation of previously released tracks, many of them available only on movie soundtracks (RZA's "Tragedy," surely one of the few hip hop records to borrow from the Eurythmics) or albums by non-Wu artists ("The What," a duet between Method Man and the Notorious B.I.G.). So far, so good: I'm glad I didn't have to buy a whole soundtrack just to hear Inspectah Deck's powerful "Semi-Automatic: Full Rap Metal Jacket," and after hearing AZ's collaboration with RZA "Whatever Happened (The Birth)," I'm inspired to check out their other work. But the album is padded out with unsurprising remixes of familiar hits like "4th Chamber," "Wu-Gambinos" and "Cold World," leaving a sour taste in your mouth. We all know these guys are trying to squeeze every dollar they can out of us, but they don't have to be so obvious about it. The collaborations are hit and miss: Killarmy featuring Sunz Of Man contribute the hard-hitting "Wake Up," and "Hip Hop Drunkies" by Tha Alkaholiks featuring Ol' Dirty Bastard is enjoyable in a mindless way, but "Gunz 'N Onez (Iz U Wit Me)" by Heltah Skeltah featuring Method Man, is so repetitive it's just dull. No producer credits are given; much of the material is obviously RZA's, but some of it clearly isn't. I don't think anyone buys a record for the packaging, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the Asian-inspired cover art is absolutely gorgeous. (DBW)

Beneath The Surface (Genius/GZA: 1999)
Out of all the Wu product that came out in 1999, this was the only plain old fashioned Wu-Tang album: sonically explosive and lyrically sharp. RZA produced just one track, the hypnotic "1112" featuring Masta Killa, Killah Priest and Njeri, but everything else bears his mark: second stringers Arabian Knight and Mathematics produced the bulk of the tracks, with John The Baptist (the terrific "Crash Your Crew" featuring Ol' Dirty Bastard) and Inspectah Deck (title track) getting one shot each. The approach isn't terribly original any more, but it still works, particularly when the loops are so arresting and the beats so solid - there are no throwaway tracks (Method Man's "Stringplay" is the closest) or self-indulgent rants. Throughout, Genius seems to be taking himself more seriously, with a maximum dose of social uplift (the chilling "Victim" featuring Njeri and Joan Davis) and a minimum of violent challenges ("Feel Like An Enemy" with Hell Raizah, Masta Killa, Trigga and Prodigal Sun). For once the interludes are a high point - several skits written by Angela Yee are insightful, concise social comments. Guests include RZA, Royal Fam, Dreddy Kruger, RES and LA The Darkman, but the disc is just as absorbing when GZA is on his own ("Mic Trippin"). The most mature and consistent Wu release I've heard, if not the most original. (DBW)

The RZA Hits (Various Artists: 1999)
Don't be fooled: this is just a collection of greatest hits by the Clan, together and separately - "Protect Ya Neck," "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," "All I Got Is You," etc - with no new material. That said, the track selection is excellent, and if you're too chicken to check out the regular releases, this is a good way to get your feet wet. (DBW)

Nigga Please (Ol' Dirty Bastard: 1999)
I guess it's impressive that ODB managed to finish an album at all, considering his much-publicized run-ins with the law. But that's all that's impressive here: his sense of humor is far less absurd and more bitter than his previous outing ("Got Your Money," "Gettin' High"), and many of the tunes are lightweight, techno-y dance pop ("I Can't Wait," a remake of Rick James's "Cold Blooded"). Most of the production is by the Neptunes, and they only come up with a few solid, satisfying grooves ("Recognize," with Chris Rock); even RZA's work (title track, "Dirt Dog") is dull, making unimaginative use of sampled horns over routine beats. None of the other Wu rappers even bother to show up; guests include Kelis and Lil' Mo, who sings the jazz standard "Good Morning Heartache" while ODB makes a fool out of himself - not nearly as much fun as it sounds. Think twice, if not three times, before picking this one up. (DBW)

Blackout (Method Man and Redman: 1999)
I have this, and I'd really better get around to reviewing it before another decade goes by. (DBW)

Uncontrolled Substance (Inspectah Deck: 1999)
Deck's solo debut seems excessively concerned with its underground credibility: the sound is rough-hewn and bleak but completely uninventive, with heavy reliance on funk guitar samples and simple drum loops. Meanwhile, the lyrics are mostly longwinded, grandiose ego inflation (title track, "Show N Prove"), and he doesn't succeed in creating a vivid persona. Admittedly a track doesn't have to be innovative to be enjoyable, but there's not one track here that delivers like his earlier "Semi Automatic." Deck produced five cuts himself - "Femme Fatale," "Word On The Street," "Elevation," "Hyperdermix" and "The Cause" (the album's closer and probable high point) - and RZA contributed two, both obvious ("Movas & Shakers" and "Friction"). The balance is produced by the Wu "B" team - True Master ("Lovin You," "Longevity," "R.E.C. Room"), 4th Disciple ("9th Chamber") and Mathematics (title track) - with one track each by Pete Rock ("Trouble Man," based on Isaac Hayes's "Joy"), the Blaquesmiths ("Show N Prove") and V.I.C. ("Forget Me Not"). Guests include U-God, Masta Killa, Street Life, La the Darkman, Barretta 9, Killa Sin and Shadii. (DBW)

Golden Arms Redemption (U-God: 1999)
U-God was always the least distinctive, hardest to pin down Wu-Tang member, and this album doesn't do much to dispell that. His rhymes are generally simple stories or party invocations ("Soul Dazzle"), with no outstanding wordplay or unusual lyrical preoccupations aside from the odd kung fu reference ("Bizarre"). Production is standard Wu kitsch-funk, split among RZA, John The Baptist ("Lay Down"), True Master ("Rumble," a classic, ominous cut featuring Leatha Face, Method Man and Deck), and a few unknowns (Bink, Homicide, whose "Hungry" makes effective use of low-end technology) - and the formula still works, though it creaks a bit. The best track is the unsettling "Shell Shock" produced by Hak Da Navigator, with Leatha Face, Raekwon and Hell Razah. Weirdest is the comic "Turbo Charge," with U-God declaiming almost operatically, while the RZA sprinkles on keyboard touches that come out of 80s dance-pop. Overall, though, it's no-frills, no-risk, no-surprises Shaolin product. Clan guest appearances are few, but Leatha Face livens things up considerably, spitting his high-speed, high-energy lines on four cuts. (DBW)

Manchild (Shyheim: 1999)
RZA is listed as executive producer, but the actual producers are the Blaquesmiths, Shotgun (from Killarmy), Darrel "Digga" Branch, Jimmy Swag, Big L, Black Moezart, E-Blast and Nashiem Myrick. Guests include Method Man, Tekitha, Ray, Big L, Dom Pacchino and T.M.F. (DBW)

Immobilarity (Raekwon: 1999)
At this point Raekwon seems more like a member of rap outfit American Cream Team than of Wu-Tang: American Cream Team guests (rather anonymously) on two tracks, and their affiliate producer Triflyn produced six. The other main producers are Mike "Trauma" D. and Jugrnaut (five tracks) and Vo and Pop (four) - Pete Rock ("Sneakers"), DJ Devastator ("Real Life"), and Carlos Broady ("Yae Yo") contributed one cut each. No sign of RZA or the second string Wu producers, but the arrangements are heavily Wu-influenced, relying on obscure string samples ("Casablance" samples Basil Polerdouris, three different tunes sample Chris Spheeris) and acerbic keyboard hooks ("100 Rounds"). Vo and Pop come off the best, with three consecutive solid head-bobbing grooves ("Raw," "Pop Shit" and "Heart To Heart"). "All I Got Is You Pt. II" consciously imitates the similarly-titled Ghostface track, but without interesting loops or Blige's vocals, it falls far short. Method Man appears on the annoying nursery rhyme "Fuck Them," Masta Killa guests on "The Table"; Ghostface, who appeared on most tracks of Raekwon's debut, doesn't show up at all. Without many diversions, it's up to Raekwon's rhymes and personality to carry the album, and though his verbal flow is impressively even - I can't tell when, if ever, he pauses for breath - that very consistency eventually gets boring, degenerating into a ceaseless sing-song. Shorn of the Byzantine imagery most of the Wu-Tang rappers use, Raekwon can be pointedly direct ("Jury") or slip into street cliché ("Real Life"), and there's plenty of both here. He's matured as a rapper since Cuban Linx, but the musical backing is much duller - not recommended if you want to know what makes Wu-Tang acts stand out. (DBW)

Supreme Clientele (Ghostface Killah: 2000)
The sound of Ghostface's second solo album is much more mainstream than Ironman, frequently relying on industry standard keyboard and drum loops ("One," "Apollo Kids"). But his rhyming is still fiercely inventive, right from the opening "Nutmeg" (featuring RZA in character as Bobby Digital) - whether Ghostface is taking on social issues, building himself up, tearing other rappers down (all of which he does in about twenty seconds on "Ghost-Deini"), his topics aren't unusual but his delivery, images and word choices are. The RZA produced four tracks, the best being "Buck 50" (featuring Cappadonna, Masta Killah, Meth and Redman), with a trilling hook and unpredictable stops and starts, and the weirdest being "Stroke Of Death" (featuring Solomon's Child and the RZA) with an incredibly irritating "tape rewinding" hook. DJ Allah Mathematics produced "Mighty Healthy" (in which Ghostface name-checks not only Derek Jeter but also Ted Koppel) and the cameo-fest "Wu Banga 101." Other producers include Six July ("We Made It"), Ju-Ju, Choo "The Specializt", C12, Hassan and The Blaquesmiths. Every Wu-Tang member appears except for ODB and Deck (who did produce one cut, "Stay True"); other guests include Superb, 60 Second Assassin, Hell Raza, and Chip Banks. The album promptly hit the Top Ten, and "Cherchez La Ghost" (with Madam Majestic and U-God) became a hit single. (DBW)

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (RZA: 2000)
The RZA produced this film soundtrack, which is peppered with quotes from the film's pseudo-samurai hero played by Forrest Whitaker. The backing tracks are a damn sight better than what ended up on The W: "Strange Eyes" is a standout, with an insidious synth line clashing with sampled horns to create a bizarrely compelling groove, plus a strong chorus, interesting lines from Sunz Of Man and 12 O'Clock, and wonderful singing from the long-silent Blue Raspberry. "4 Sho Sho" featuring North Star and RZA is similarly powerful, but overall the album suffers from a lack of focus. The full Clan appears on one track, "Fast Shadow," Masta Killah is on "The Man," and RZA adds several raps, but most of the album is turned over to proteges: Black Nights ("Zip Code," built on a deeply strange keyboard line), Royal Fam and La The Darkman ("Walk The Dogs"); Super Bang Bang ("Don't Test/Wu Stallion"). Tekitha's feature "Walking Through The Darkness" isn't hip hop at all, it's a fine, ominous R&B groove in line with some of the material on Bobby Digital In Stereo. (DBW)

View From Masada (Killah Priest: 2000)
Review coming soon. Okay, maybe "soon" is the wrong word. (DBW)

Visions Of The Tenth Chamber (Popa Wu: 2000)

The W (2000)
The third full Wu-Tang album is disappointing not because it's too much (like Wu-Tang Forever) but because it's too little. The RZA produced every cut but one (Allah Mathematics's "Do You Really (Thang, Thang)"), but in his continuing quest for novelty he often forgets to make a solid track, just going with simple programmed drums plus keyboard riff ("Chamber Music," the bonus track "Clap"). Not many people would have the guts to make a rap single out of looped vibes interrupted by an unaccompanied trumpet riff ("Gravel Pit"), but it's not inspired lunacy - it just sounds cracked. A few times RZA shifts beats in the middle of a song - virtually unknown in hip-hop - but too often the quick changes merely substitute one throwaway groove for another (the three different pieces that make up "The Monument," with a guest shot from Busta Rhymes). Only a few tracks really connect, including "I Can't Go To Sleep," a harrowing social comment which ably blends extended samples from Isaac Hayes's cover of "Walk On By," new Hayes vocals and powerful raps from Ghostface and RZA. Leadoff single "Protect Ya Neck - The Jump Off" uses the beat from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas's "Tramp," famously sampled by Salt-N-Pepa. Most tracks feature a profusion of different rappers, while a couple are showcases: "One Blood" features reggae singer Junior Reed on the chorus, while the uninspired, lackadaisical verses are from Masta Killa. All the Clan members managed to participate - Ol' Dirty, who was in rehab while the disc was cut, somehow appears on "Conditioner" with Snoop Dog. (DBW)

The Yin And The Yang (Cappadonna: 2001)
A crashing bore. Cappadonna's raps are dull and obvious, with the guest artists adding little or nothing ("Revenge," with Timbo King). The production is just as weak: RZA didn't contribute at all, True Master and Goldfingaz each produced cuts that just recycle Wu formulas ("Super Model," "Love Is The Message") - I actually thought they were repeated from earlier albums. The bulk of the production is from Neonek, who doesn't display any individuality; Jermaine Dupri does produce one track, and brings Da Brat in for a guest shot, and though it doesn't fit the atmosphere at all it's still probably the album's best track ("We Know"). Otherwise, the best tracks merely succeed in not being awful ("Bread Of Life," with Killah Priest and Neonek); opener "The Grits" has the most unexpected sample, from DLG's "Lagrimas." Ghostface and Raekwon are the only Clan members who appear; other guests include Shyheim, Jamie Sommers, Crunch, Culture and 8-Off. (DBW)

The Genuine Article (Remedy: 2001)
You have to wonder: the circle of Wu-affiliates includes everyone from Black Israelites (Sunz Of Man) to Muslims (RZA) to at least one white Jew, Remedy - all of whom profess to be very serious about their sectarian faiths - yet they seem to get along just fine. Remedy has fun with his unique position, poking fun both at Eminem and other "white kids trying to be black," and at Muslim Five Percenters (the male adherents of which refer to themselves modestly as "gods"); he doesn't have the cosmic phrasing or allusiveness of GZA or Killah Priest, but he has interesting things to say - which is even harder to come by. "Never Again," which first appeared on The Swarm, is recycled here, and it's the album's outstanding track, along with "Education," which uses an RZA guest appearance and the chorus from Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall" (slightly modified) to drive home its message about the school system. He's a bit lost, however, when he gets away from social statements: his love stories ("Girlfriend") and vague admonitions ("The Ambush" -both songs featuring Cappadonna) are generic and occasionally irritating. Remedy produced all the tracks, which was a mistake: he uses the same tempo on every tune, and mostly just sets up a drum and guitar or keyboard loop, and lets it run uninterrupted ("Fallen Angels"). He also sings several choruses, which aren't anywhere close to catchy because he sounds completely tone-deaf ("Hip Hop Music"). Credible but undercooked - yet another sign that the Wu empire is overextended. (DBW)

Priesthood (Killah Priest: 2001)
Released in July; George Clinton guests. (DBW)

Wu-Chronicles: Chapter II (2001)
Like the previous Wu-Chronicles, a compilation of guest appearances (Meth with D'Angelo, Killah Priest with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and some hard-to-find tracks (Popa Wu's "Three Amigos," GZA's "Hip Hop Fury." Every Wu member is on at least one track except Raekwon and Cappadonna. (DBW)

Digital Bullet (RZA As Bobby Digital: 2001)
While RZA's first album as super-antihero Bobby Digital was a groove-heavy break from his usual approach to hip-hop, this disc is a return to the dense insanity of his mid-90s work: incongrous loop combinations, irresistable beats, pounding piano - even the squeaky violin, MIA since 1997, makes a triumphant return on "Do U" (featuring GZA). He produced everything except Tony Touch's Southern bounce "Domestic Violence Pt. 2" featuring Big Gipp, and True Master's pleasant but unvarying "La Rhumba" (the first single). RZA managed to get a track out of a then-fugitive ODB, but it's misogynist garbage that's the record's low point ("Black Widow Pt. 2"). The album winds up with a couple of social conscience tunes that aren't exactly inspired ("Righteous Way" with Junior Reid), but "Build Strong" is enjoyable anyway thanks to Tekitha's backing vocals. Aside from the rest of the Clan, guests include Beretta, Big Gipp, Prodical, Intrigue, Jamie Sommers, Black Knights, Mad Cez, and Killa Sin. (DBW)

Fear, Love And War (Killarmy: 2001)

Nightmare In A-Minor (Gravediggaz: 2001)
RZA's not part of the group anymore; True Master did produce some tracks. (DBW)

Bulletproof Wallets (Ghostface Killah: 2001)
Ghostface has never been my favorite Wu-Tang member, but he consistently puts interesting words to interesting music, and he indulges his pet themes and quest for crossover hits without allowing them too much album space. The first single was "Never Be The Same Again," another spiteful love-gone-wrong lament (cf. "Wildflower") with a smooth soul hook sung by Carl Thomas and mellow, decidedly un-Wu production from LILZ and PLX; Chris Liggio's "Ghost Showers," which samples Dr. Buzzard's "Sunshowers," is similarly trivial. But most of the tracks are more visceral, including two fine Allah Mathematics numbers ("Strawberry," one of the highlights; "Theodore" with a weird music box hook and guest vocals from Twiz and Twife) and some characteristic work from RZA, who contributed five cuts ("Maxine," a terrific, hard-bitten story song). There are also two by Al Chemist ("The Forest," a lengthy comic riff on cartoon characters), and one each from Underdawgz ("Love Session" featuring Ruff Endz) and Carlos Brody ("The Hilton"). Raekwon is on five tracks; other guests include Method Man, Killa Sin and Superb. Not sonically mind-blowing like Digital Bullet but more consistent and lyrically riveting; for the second Ghostface album in a row, the tracklist on the packaging doesn't match what's on the actual CD - how hard is it to sync those up? (DBW)

How High (Various: 2001)
Soundtrack to the movie starring Method Man and Redman, and one or both appear on nearly every track. (DBW)

Iron Flag (2001)
A mish-mash: the best tunes are packed with hard-hitting verses and heavy, cathartic backing tracks ("Rules" produced by Mathematics; "Radioactive," where GZA is particularly devastating; the smokey soul "One Of These Days"), but many cuts overuse obvious refrains ("In The Hood," "Good Thing We Brought The Glock") and lazy loops ("Y'all Been Warned," built on a repetitive guitar lick; "Chrome Wheels"). The first single, "Uzi (Pinky Ring)," and the concluding "Dashing" are somewhere in between: listenable, but nothing to build a reputation on. RZA brings a Bobby Digital-style R&B groove to "Babies," which is a nice change of pace though the track isn't particularly memorable. Lyrically it's a letdown: though there are plenty of great one-liners, the ambition and unearthly reach that characterized 36 Chambers and Forever is mostly gone, represented only by a couple of kung fu samples and some oddball references to the World Trade Center. Nothing from Cappadonna, who's apparently out of the group, and no ODB, though Flavor Flav fills the clown role on "Soul Power"; Ronald Isley lays his usual smooth vocals on "Back In The Game," produced by Trackmasters (Poke and Tone). Madame D sings the hook on two tracks, apparently inheriting the Blue Raspberry/Tekitha role. (DBW)

The Trials And Tribulations Of Russell Jones (Ol' Dirty Bastard: 2002)
At the time of his death, ODB was working on an album for Rock-A-Fella Records; I hope it gets released, though I'm not usually fond of posthumous releases, because otherwise this dreadful, cynical concoction will be his last word. Clearly in a hurry, producer Tytanic throws together one dull track after another, all with similar programmed drums and synth bass. No other Clan members appear (though Sunz of Man are somewhere on "Lintballz"), but ODB wasn't able to contribute much either, so a lot of room is left open for the likes of Royal Flush, C-Murder and the Insane Clown Posse, who spew their unfunny schtick on "Dirty & Stinkin'." Several tracks hit rock bottom by reusing ODB vocal tracks from earlier albums ("Dogged Out" comes from "Dog Shit"; "C'Mon" is from "Baby C'Mon"; "Zoo Two" is "Damage") over stale beats. And the less said about the segues ("Taking A Shit") the better. (DBW)

The Sting (Wu-Tang Killa Beez: 2002)
Like The Swarm, a compilation of new tracks mostly featuring second- and third-tier Wu artists, but this time it's really weak: RZA produced most of the cuts, but for the first time, virtually nothing he contributed is gripping or unusual, let alone mindblowing. Songs like "Spend Money" (Lord Subperb), "Spit That G" (Cappadonna, Solomon Childs, Prodical, Timbo King and Suga Bang Bang) and "Bluntz, Martinez, Girlz, & Gunz" aren't just subpar for him, they're subpar for hip hop in general. The only striking tune is "KB Ridin'" featuring the Clan, Shacronz and Suga Bang Bang, with a variety of dissonant, varispeeded samples, but even that's more weird than exciting. And it doesn't help that the Black Knights are the stars of the disc, spewing their schoolyard-quality rhymes on five cuts ("Bar Mitzvah"). But the bonus disc includes five Bobby Digital tracks, and three are excellent: "Odyssey" featuring the Isaac Hayes Band and a clever social consciouness rap from RZA; "Digi-Electronics" with a great chorus hook; and the intense story song "Billy." There's also an instrumental ("RZA Beat") and a remix of "La Rhumba" featuring Fat Joe. If you find the version without the bonus disc, avoid it like The Plague. (DBW)

Savior's Day (Sunz Of Man: 2002)

Legend Of The Liquid Sword (GZA/Genius: 2002)
A big dropoff from GZA's last two albums, in every area. None of the backing tracks are first-rate, though "Auto Bio" and "Knock Knock," both produced by Jay Garfield, are pleasant retro-funk. RZA's Sting slump continues with the drab "Rough Cut," and Allah Mathematics doesn't do much better with the retread "Fam (Members Only)." The guest shots don't add much (Ghostface and Streetlife on "Silent"; RZA and Mast Killa on "Fam"), though Allen Anthony does an impressive Curtis Mayfield impression (sorry) on the title track. Most importantly, GZA isn't as sharp lyrically: too many tracks are just trivial ("Did Ya Say That," produced by BOOLA; "Sparring Minds" featuring Deck), and his wordplay songs are way below par: "Fame" is merely a compilation of weak puns on celebrities' names, and "Animal Planet" is a pointless catalog of characteristics imputed to animals (sort of his "At The Zoo"). He really only rises to the occasion on the statement of purpose "Auto Bio" and an eye-opening look at rural violence ("Luminal"). (DBW)

Code:Red (Remedy: 2003)

The World According To RZA (RZA: 2003)
RZA works with artists from all over Europe: Germany (Xaivier Naidoo, Afrob), Sweden (Feven), France (Saian Supa Crew, Passi), Turkey (Bekats), and so on. (DBW)

The Struggle (Cappadonna: 2003)

The Movement (Inspectah Deck: 2003)

Love Hell Or Right (Da Come Up) (Mathematics: 2003)
I guess everyone in the Wu-niverse gets their solo album sooner or later. Producer Mathematics doesn't rap, so it's up to his long procession of guests: Buddah Bless ("Pimpology 101," based on a wonderful soul sample I can't place), Eyeslow ("Juscantluv"), Killa Sin and La Da Darkman ("Hav Mercy"), Poppa Don ("Queens Day '88"), Street Life ("Gun Talk"), Prodigal Sunn ("Hip Hop 101" - doesn't this guy teach any advanced courses?). The Wu-Tang Clan is credited on several tracks (the single "Respect Mine"; "Da Great Siege"), but it surely isn't the whole group, and I can't really tell which members are present. Whoever's talking, they're not saying much: the topics are very familiar - hard times in the hood, trying to make it as a rapper, etc. - and I didn't hear a single striking image or memorable line. Mathematics does come up with a lot of quality grooves (the hypnotic "Alwayz N.Y."), though they all follow RZA's lead: uptempo piano-based Wu-bangers ("Hav Mercy"); slow retro-soul with sung hooks ("Thank U (Da DJ's Version)"); and the usual incongruous samples. The only really unusual backing track is found on a brief skit ("Da Heist," with a primitive Casio synth line and drums to match). Instrumentation is credited to "The Bobby Digital Band" including W. Ramsey Jones (drums) and Djibril Toure (bass and guitar). (DBW)

Birth Of A Prince (RZA: 2003)
I don't know why this wasn't marketed as a Bobby Digital record, since it's roughly the same format - a string of over-the-top gangsta raps ("Drink, Smoke & Fuck"), winding up with a few none-too-convincing social conscience numbers ("A Day To God Is 1,000 Years") - and RZA mostly refers to himself by that name. He produced most of the tracks, and they're weak imitations of his usual styles: "Grits" (based on "I'll Take You There") is a nostalgic look at childhood like "All I Got Is You." "The Birth (Broken Hearts)" has hoarse, melancholy female vocals like "Can It Be All So Simple." And "We Pop" (with Dirt McGirt - the erstwhile ODB - and Division) is a raucous Wu-banger like "1112" or "Brooklyn Zoo II." There's no freshness or spark ("Fast Cars" featuring Ghostface), and little enthusiasm. The best of a bad lot are "Koto Gotan" featuring Master Killer and Madam Sheez, and the smoky, piano-driven "Chi Kung" with Beretta 9, Cilvaringz and Featherz. Simultaneously, RZA contributed a couple of songs to the Kill Bill, Vol. I soundtrack. (DBW)

The Lex Diamond Story (Raekwon: 2003)
No production from Wu associates, though about half the Clan pops up on one track or another. (DBW)

Bobby Digital Presents Northstar (Northstar: 2004)
I have to take a break from reviewing all these Wu spinoffs; I'm forgetting why I liked this crew in the first place. I think Northstar is made up of Christ Bearer and Meko, though there are so many guest rappers here - Kinetic, Shacronz, Freemurder, Ninth Prince - I can't really tell who's who. RZA produced four tracks, ranging in quality from the abysmal dance-pop "Destiny" (hook sung by Kinetic) to the dry, repetitive "Red Rum," to the respectable if forgettable "See Me." Armand Van Helden rips off Kanye West's sped-up soul sample schtick on "Luv Allah," but also contributes the record's one truly enjoyable track, the uber-catchy "Nuttin" (based on a gospel sample I can't place). Other producers include Mathematics (the overly repetitive "Duckie"; "We Got It"), Choco ("So So Serious"), Mix Jive Musick ("Black Knights Of The Northstar") and D.R. Period ("Ballin" with Solomon Childs and Suga Bang Bang). The only consistency to the album is provided by some desperately unfunny skits featuring the Bartles & James-loving Calvin Cooler. (DBW)

The Pretty Toney Album (Ghostface: 2004)
One of many ill-fated attempts to recapture Wu-Tang's early magic; this time Ghostface figures the secret ingredient was 70s soul samples, so he loads up the disc with snippets of Gamble/Huff ("Save Me Dear"), Thom Bell ("Holla"), the Emotions ("Tooken Back"), and so on. But he and his crew of unheralded producers - Nottz, K Def, No ID - just loop 'em and leave 'em instead of using them as building blocks, so the sound is a thin patchwork. Most of the lyrics deal with relationships from one angle ("Be This Way") or another ("It's Over"), never approaching the intensity of past successes like "Wildflower," and a number of remarkably puerile, vulgar skits ("Last Night") make it hard to take the romantic tunes ("Holla") seriously. Likewise, RZA's two tracks are nothing special ("Run" featuring Jadakiss; "Kunta Fly Shit"), but there are two good cuts: the catchy dance track "Ghostface," and the closing "Love" featuring Musiq and K. Fox - based on David Ruffin's "Statue Of A Fool" - is a tender elegy. And if you've been put off by the brain-dead, cloyingly "commercial" leadoff single "Tush" (the first time I've heard Missy Elliott on a track she didn't write or produce), nothing else sinks quite to that level. (DBW)

Tical 0: The Prequel (Method Man: 2004)
Meth's material is never too complicated, but at his best, he livens up his mix of shout-outs, self-promotion and hedonism with imagery that's homespun but fresh ("The Motto") and casual enthusiasm. He's in good form here, and the backing tracks are consistently enjoyable. RZA only produced one cut ("The Turn"), but his techniques are everywhere: instruments you can't quite place ("What's Happenin'" featuring Busta Rhymes, samples Asha Bhosle); great homebrewed hooks ("The Prequel," with a wonderfully heavy synth line); obscure soul samples ("Tease" featuring Chinky). There are a couple of flops, though: "Who Ya Rollin Wit," with cheesy synth and a braindead chorus; "We Some Dogs," with Redman and Snoop Dogg... just when you thought rappers couldn't run dog imagery any farther into the ground, they do. Some big name guests - Missy Elliott ("Say What" - the best Sean Combs production I've heard in years, with bongos slowed down so far the sound like tabla); Ludacris ("Rodeo") - and a few Wu associates: RZA ("Intro"), Raekwon ("The Turn"), Ghostface (the string-heavy "Afterparty") and Streetlife ("Crooked Letter I"). (DBW)

No Said Date (Masta Killa: 2004)
The last Wu-Tang member to go solo, Masta Killa is softspoken and not terribly charismatic ("Grab The Microphone"), and this debut is too calm for its own good. His rhymes are scattershot, too, rarely staying focused for an entire verse, let alone a song (title track, a rambling explanation for the album's delayed release), and he's possibly the only person in the world who thinks "uterus contractin'" is effective seduction patter. Right from the kung-fu-movie-sampling intro, it's an old school affair: all the original Clan members are present and accounted for, even ODB ("Old Man," which samples the Sanford And Son theme), and the other guests are longtime associates like Killah Priest and Streetlife ("Whatever," a bouncy number with swirling keyboards). Likewise, most of the production is either by RZA (the tempo-shifting "School"), Mathematics ("D.T.D.," based on Otis Redding's version of "Try A Little Tenderness") or True Master ("Silverbacks," with a satisfying greasy groove). So there are nostalgic pleasures here (the dramatic "Last Drink" by Mathematics), but I can't say this was worth the ten-year wait. A bonus DVD contains two live performances, one solo and one with GZA. (DBW)

Disciples Of The 36 Chambers: Chapter 1 (2004)
The entire original Clan (with Cappadonna) reunited at a July 2004 concert, captured on this disc. They cram twenty-seven songs onto the disc, mostly sticking to the most fertile years from '93 to '97 ("Ice Cream," sí; "Cherchez La Ghost," no). All the original members are not only present, they sound glad to be there ("Shimmy Shimmy Ya," the last ODB recording released during his lifetime). The usual problems with live hip hop are present, though: the production subtleties are lost - you have to strain to hear the hooks over the booming drumbeat - it's harder to decipher the lyrics, and many of the numbers are reduced to medley form. And because they're so focused on reproducing the old numbers, there's next to no improvisation... it's like an oldies tour come thirty years early. (DBW)

Osirus: The Official Mixtape (Ol' Dirty Bastard: 2005)
The first of several expected posthumous releases. (DBW)

The Problem (Mathematics: 2005)
The Clan's all here, one place or another. (DBW)

Mr. Xcitement (U-God: 2005)

A Son Unique (Ol' Dirty Bastard: 2005)
Guests include Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams, Macy Gray, and half of the Clan. (DBW)

Grandmasters (DJ Muggs vs. GZA The Genius: 2005)
A minor work but a solid one. Different Clan members have used chess allusions throughout the group's career, but this is the first album built entirely on them. GZA builds one song-long extended metaphor after another, telling a variety of sharply observed tales like the romance "Queen's Gambit" (including a virtuosic riff linking names of football teams) and the crime spree "Exploitation Of Mistakes." The between-song links seem to be actual lessons from a Russian master. The one tune that clearly doesn't follow the theme is "All In Together Now," an ODB tribute featuring RZA. DJ Muggs produced all the music, and it's serviceable mid-tempo loops using RZA mannerisms - piano on slow tunes, sped-up bass on fast ones ("Unstoppable Threats"), Bollywood strings, soul vocals ("Destruction Of A Guard") - that's never arresting but never gets in GZA's way either. (DBW)

FishScale (Ghostface Killah: 2006)
A welcome rebound from Pretty Toney both musically and lyrically, Ghostface is at the peak of his powers here, spitting out high-intensity stories with vivid imagery and compelling plots ("Jellyfish"; "The Champ"). He delves into his usual themes: drug dealing ("Kilo"); love gone wrong (the sweltering first single "Back Like That" featuring Ne-Yo); "Momma" (with Megan Rochell) may be the best of his unsentimental, ambivalent, loving portraits of his mother. The production - largely from MF Doom or Pete Rock - is no-nonsense, either crafting a smoky soul mood without resorting to obvious samples ("R.A.G.U.") or else building driving vamps ("Be Easy") that keep your attention without distracting from Ghostface's rhymes. There are way too many segues ("Bad Mouth Kid"), most of which are lame jokes ("Heart Street Directions"), but the complete songs are top-notch ("Clispe Of Doom" featuring Trife). The entire Clan shows up on "9 Milli Bros.," a vintage blend of detuned strings and hard-hitting verses that makes you wish RZA would get an actual Wu-Tang album together. (DBW)

The Resident Patient (Inspectah Deck: 2006)

Made In Brooklyn (Masta Killa: 2006)

4:21 The Day After (Method Man: 2006)

More Fish (Ghostface Killah: 2006)
Includes Ghostface's remix of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good." (DBW)

Afro Samurai: The Soundtrack (The RZA Presents: 2007)
Clearly, RZA is the go-to guy if you need a soundtrack for a project about a black samurai, this time a cartoon. It's surprisingly conventional, with lots of brief, synth-string-based instrumental themes that aren't particularly striking ("Afro Intro (Inst.)"; "Bazooka Fight Inst. II"). Some of it's fun, though: the Isaac Hayes homage "Afro's Father Fight." The full-length songs are generic rap numbers ("Cameo Afro" featuring Big Daddy Kane, GZA and Suga Bang; "Just A Lil Dude" with Q-Tip and Free Murder). He doesn't seem to be feeling very romantic these days, so he brings in a couple of lame bedroom jam purveyors: Stone Mecca (the endless "Oh"; the "Do Me Baby" ripoff "The Walk") and Maurice ("Baby"). He also only uses female vocals, so prominent in his early 90s work, on "Fury In My Eyes/Revenge" featuring Thea. The disc wraps up with four Bobby Digital bonus tracks, which are a step up ("We All We Got") though still nothing to text home about. (DBW)

The Big Doe Rehab (Ghostface Killah: 2007)
This hit the streets a week before the Wu-Tang reunion record, apparently because Ghostface was unhappy with RZA's final product and wanted to make his rebuttal in advance, so to speak. Curiously, though, Ghostface's latest is as far below his recent standard as 8 Diagrams is above RZA's. The team from FishScale was replaced by LV & Sean C, Scram Jones, and a few others who have no real ideas: the tracks rely on unusual but unexciting soul samples (Rare Earth's "I Just Want To Celebrate"; "Killer Lipstick" is based on Faze-O's "Riding High"). There are so many guests (including most of the Clan on one tune or another, and Raekwon on three) that the record doesn't find a focus: Ox's a capella, half-sung "The Prayer" is interesting, but what's it doing here? Ghostface covers his usual themes ("Yolanda's House"; "I'll Die For You") but only rarely finds a fresh perspective ("Walk Around" is a welcome exception); on "White Linen Affair (The Toney Awards)" he's reduced to reciting a long list of overdiscussed celebrities. (DBW)

8 Diagrams (2007)
In the six years since the last Clan album, ODB had passed away, and I'm sure that's one reason the mood is so dour ("Life Changes," with each member saying his farewell to Dirty). But everything seems to be weighing heavily on our superheroes this time out, as they sound pessimistic about earlier sources of ambivalence like wealth ("Stick Me For My Riches"), women ("Campfire") and tough-guy bluster ("Weak Spot"). RZA's backing tracks are similarly bleak ("Get Them Out Ya Way Pa"), though he conjures up a few grand, cathartic soundscapes (the well-named "Unpredictable"). The feeling is summed up on "The Heart Gently Weeps" - based on the Beatles song, with Erykah Badu singing the mournful hook as Dhani Harrison and Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante add guitars - but comes across even better on several other cuts ("Windmill"; "Stick Me For My Riches"). Conceptually it's in the same direction as There's A Riot Goin' On, and like that other self-study of artistic exhaustion, even the weaknesses ("Gun Will Go") are part of the point. Almost completely produced by RZA; the guests are generally confined to singing choruses (George Clinton on "Wolves" - Clinton also adds a bizarre, Redd Foxx-channeling rap to the bonus track "Tar Pit"). (DBW)

Digi Snacks (RZA As Bobby Digital: 2008)
I have this but won't be reviewing it soon: it's a big letdown after 8 Diagrams, just one dull, melancholy soul loop after another, nothing you haven't heard done better before. (DBW)

Pro Tools (GZA: 2008)
GZA goes back to basics here, using Wu-affiliate producers Mathematics ("Pencil," with Masta Killer and RZA), True Master ("Alphabets"), Arabian Knight and Bronze Nazareth, plus getting two tracks from RZA ("Paper Plate," a diss of 50 Cent; "Life Is A Movie," with an oddly appropriate Gary Numan sample). It's far from fresh, pretty good in spots ("Firehouse," featuring Ka) but overall easy to ignore ("0% Finance") primarily because GZA has surprisingly little to say. (DBW)

Afro Samurai Resurrection: The Soundtrack (The RZA Presents: 2009)
Another soundtrack; RZA's on four tracks, while Deck ("You Already Know") and Ghostface ("Whar") are on one apiece. (DBW)

Blackout! 2 (Method Man/Redman: 2009)
Raekwon and Ghostface guest; producers include Mathematics, Pete Rock, Eric Sermon and Rockwilder. (DBW)

Dopium (U-God: 2009)
Guests include most of the Clan plus Killah Priest and Jim Jones. Production doesn't include any of the Wu-usuals, instead it's largely Teddy Ted and J. Serbe. (DBW)

Wu-Tang Chamber Music (Various Artists: 2009)
The trick here was getting a live band (The Revelations) to pump out tunes that approximate the sonic stew RZA was cooking up in the 90s, with Wu-Tang members rapping over them. Half of the 17 tracks are brief words of wisdom from RZA ("Supreme Architecture"), so the disc is relatively short but it's pretty decent: furious rhymes over laconic piano chords on "Evil Deeds"; Deck and U-God somehow make another list of boasts sound fresh on "Sound The Horns"; Ghostface with yet another ambivalent love song ("I Wish You Were Here" with Tre Williams). Some tracks are low-key (Raekwon with Cormega and Sean Price on "Radiant Jewels"; Deck and Masta Ace on "Kill Too Hard") though nothing's flat-out junk. Mostly produced by Fizzy Womack, Andrew Kelley and Noah Rubin; RZA produced only his feature "NYC Crack" (with an arch Billie Holiday impersonation from Thea Van Seijen). (DBW)

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II (Raekwon: 2009)
Years in the making, this finally came out in September. As with the first Cuban Linx, Ghostface appears on many tracks, and there's plenty of help from the rest of the Clan and associates like Popa Wu ("Return Of The North Star") and Blue Raspberry ("Have Mercy"). It's a pointed return to the mid-90s in other ways as well, from the frantic beats ("Penitentiary") to the kung-fu imagery ("House Of Flying Daggers," with Deck, Ghost, GZA and Meth). There are too many producers to list; the most prominent apart from RZA ("Black Mozart"; "New Wu") are Dr. Dre ("Catalina" featuring Lyfe Jennings; "About Me" with Busta Rhymes) and J Dilla ("10 Bricks"). But many of the most impressive tracks are from less known names: The Alchemist works wonders with a Styx sample on "Surgical Gloves"; Icewater Productions finds a scary, stirring orchestral sample for "Canal Street." As with the first Linx, I'm generally bored by the many ways the Chef finds to celebrate street crime, but this time the backing tracks are rock-solid ("We Will Rob You"). (DBW)

Ghostdini, The Wizard Of Poetry (Ghostface Killah: 2009)
Another Ghostface solo project, this time focused on the many facets of romance. Few can match Ghost's ability to be artful and direct at the same time, and that serves him well covering such well-trodden territory: He brings startling clarity to vulnerable confessions (the luscious "Do Over" with Raheem DeVaughan), raging recriminations ("Guest House" with Fabolous), blow-by-blow bedroom talk ("Stapleford Sex") and open declarations ("I'll Be That") alike. The music relies heavily on old school soul ("Stay"; "Forever"), coupled with (relatively) up-to-date R&B features (the Autotuned "Baby"; they synth-dance "She's A Killah"). Sean C & LV produced four tracks, otherwise each track has a different producer, and there are just as many guests: John Legend on "Let's Stop Playin'"; Kanye West on a fiery remix of "Back Like That"; Shareefa on two cuts). (DBW)

Manifesto (Inspectah Deck: 2010)
Raekwon and Cappadonna are the only Wu-guests. (DBW)

Wu-Massacre (Meth/Ghost/Rae: 2010)
Back in the 90s when Prince was fighting with Warner Brothers, he put out a couple of albums that sounded like the singles had been excised - sort of a "greatest hits in reverse" - so he could save them for later. I don't think Method Man, Ghostface and Raekwon are following that strategy, but the record has some of the same qualities: It's short (just over half an hour), the padding ("Smooth Sailing Remix" with Streetlife; a couple of segues) and ordinary tracks ("Our Dreams," built by RZA over a Michael Jackson sample) are present, but there's nothing that sounds like an A-side. No surprises in the lyrics either, just the usual themes ("Meth vs. Chef 2"; "Criminology 2.5"). So listening is an exercise in slow-building frustration, as you keep waiting for the really good stuff to come up. Several tracks were produced by Mathematics ("Miranda") with two more from Scram Jones ("Youngstown Heist," with Trife da God and Sheek Louch). (DBW)

Pollen: The Swarm Pt. 3 (Wu-Tang Killer Bees: 2010)
About half the tracks are by Wu members, which undercuts the "Killer Bees" concept; other cuts come from 12 O'Clock, Rev. Burke and Solomon Childs among others. (DBW)

Apollo Kids (Ghostface Killah: 2010)
Seems like Ghost is putting out as many records as the whole rest of the group combined, and the quality isn't necessarily suffering but this is one of the dull ones. Thematically he's back to crime stories, and it's no fresher musically. (DBW)

Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang (Raekwon: 2011)

Wu-Block (Ghostface Killah & Sheek Louch: 2012)
After twenty years of making records, it's a bit dispiriting that these guys have basically nothing to talk about besides stories of their drug dealing days ("Stella"). Nearly every track has a different producer, all unknown to me apart from EPMD's Erick Sermon. Includes guest shots from most of the Clan - GZA, Raekwon, Meth, Deck, Cappadonna - plus the other two members of Louch's The LOX (Jadakiss and Styles P) and a very sedate Erykah Badu ("Drivin' Round"). (DBW)

The Man With The Iron Fists Original Soundtrack (2012)
The soundtrack to RZA's directorial debut includes two tracks credited to Wu-Tang Clan plus solo tracks from Ghost, Meth and RZA, plus outsiders including The Black Keys and Idle Warship. (DBW)

Selling My Soul (Masta Killa: 2012)
Hardly any guests, but Kurupt is on "Cali Sun" and ODB is on "Dirty Soul." (DBW)

Twelve Reasons To Die (Ghostface Killah: 2013)
Produced by Adrian Younge, who seems to have cornered the market on retro pseudo-soundtracks for nonexistent blaxploitation movies. Not sure how big a market that is, because it combines a lack of originality with a lack of quality composition: Basically the effect is as if Ghostface were rapping over sampled 70s soul tracks but not good ones. The story is just another mobster yarn, with Tony Starks beamed into 60s Italy. (DBW)

Exit the Wu-Tang.

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