Saturday, 4 January 2003

Album Review: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

The music world had never heard anything like it. Eight MCs from New York with at least three personas each and an unmitigated passion for kung-fu movies release an album full of blood, passion, violence and Eastern mysticism coupled with eerie piano and string arrangements and pulsating basslines. Now, a decade after its release it's believed to be the second most essential hip hop album ever recorded (just behind Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions).

The moment Ghostface Killah nails the first line on Bring Da Ruckus the hip hop world would never be the same again. After an uncompromising verse and with no fuss or pause Ghostface passes the microphone to Raekwon who seamlessly continues. Hip hop groups of course were not unheard of, but where groups like Public Enemy and the Ultramagnetic MCs each had a main rapper, here there were eight equally visible rappers, each as talented as the last.

While eventually the group would collapse under the weight of kung-fu kitsch, ten years ago they were genuinely intimidating. Their description of what they do to journalists that serves as the introduction to Method Man is grotesque. Earlier Gza had threatened to "slit a nigger's back like a Dutch master killer" on Wu Tang: 7th Chamber.

What makes the Wu Tang so entertaining is that each MC has their own personality well-crafted, even at this formative stage of their careers. Each MC brings an enthusiasm and character to the album. Surrounding the three master storytellers (Raekwon, Gza and Ghostface Killah) are U-God and Inspectah Deck who have never bettered their respective verses on this LP, the director Rza who also delivers most of his best verses here, witty prankster Method Man and resident lunatic ODB. Method Man, in particular, has never been in better fettle than on his eponymous track. His humour is evident throughout the entire LP, but it is on Method Man where he most successfully melds it with a degree of gravity ("I be Sam, Sam I Am / and I don't eat green eggs and ham / style will hit ya, then god damn / you be like oh shit, that's the jam"). ODB is as manic as ever; he is only slightly more coherent than he has been on later releases ("Burn me, I get into shit, I let it out like diarrhoea / got burnt once, but that was only gonorrhoea"). This blend is what makes Wu Tang group efforts so good, but it is on their debut that the melange is at its most potent.

C.R.E.A.M. remains the Wu's most perfectly recorded moment. Raekwon and Inspectah Deck fill the listener in on how hard it was for them growing up, "A man with a dream with plans to make CREAM / which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen / a young buck selling drugs and such who never had much / trying to get a clutch at what I could not.... could not...."

Wu Tang: 7th Chamber has the entire Clan (bar U-God) attempt to out-do each other in some short verses. The beat is almost skeletal and the track has no chorus, meaning that each MC merely passes the mic to his next compadre. The track also gives ODB the chance to say perhaps his best, and unquestionably his funniest, couplet to date, "Are you, uh, ah, uh, are you a warrior? Killer? Slicing shit like a samurah / The Ol' Dirty Bastard. Wunderba!" It's the first and last time ODB would deal in the German language, which, on this evidence, is a crying shame.

Meanwhile, the Wendy Rene-sampling Tearz sounds like some demented carnival mixed with the subject matter of TLC's Waterfalls. In fact it's hard to believe that TLC's track wasn't heavily inspired by this track, as the subject matter is essentially identical. Rza's first verse tells of the murder of his brother and Ghostface Killah's verse tells of his friend who catches HIV. And has any band ever recorded a mission statement as perfect as Wu Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta F' Wit? This writer thinks not.

Many albums are branded as being landmark releases few however actually deserve the title. Enter The Wu Tang is an album that is entirely worthy of its reputation. It seems unlikely that the Wu will ever better it, or anybody else for that matter.

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