Enigmatic and argumentative, Wu-Tang Clan‘s 9-man battalion of impeccable lyricists and raconteurs capture the grim reality of inner-city survival with a startling thematic fluidity, a unity wholly unexpected from a soup stirred by far too many ladles. Marrying a fly on the wall realism to the supernatural mystique of Wuxia cinema, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) constructs its own language and cultural benchmarks from the unique perspective of each member, lending a contemplative demeanor, vigor and peculiarity to hardcore Hip Hop’s growing consonance. Through this democracy of voices and contrast in theme, Wu-Tang births a sound as socially conscious as it is sophisticated, stressing the equal importance of reflecting reality and deconstructing artistic forms.
Shouted in guttural monotones and intended as brusque provocation, Wu-Tang’s vocals are brawny and quarrelsome, “murdering the rhythm,” especially when the crew barks out the last word of each bar or parrots the primary vocalist’s lyrics in the wake. Intellectually, the unit has a remarkable retention of pop culture minutiae, rifling through cagey in-jokes, 80’s political footnotes and arcane aspects of Blaxploitation with striking volubility and velocity. A masterful cohesion is sustained on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” capturing 6 members aligned in momentum and motif, breaking only to insert their own perspective or hand off the microphone to the succeeding focal point.
Functioning at the same level individually as they do in formation, each vocalist forges a unique role on the team, even if only given twelve bars. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s comedic sashay stands out the most, tonally, due in part to a drunken stammer, not far removed from Redd Foxx’s delivery, but met with a proclivity for fisticuffs and a charming boastfulness about the breadth of his depravity (“Jacques Cousteau could never get this low”). Raekwon is more focused and fluid, but no less indelible, compellingly capturing bleak moments without hint of fabrication or conceit. His sketches of teenage cocaine addiction and the paradox of drug dealing for sustenance are solemn and never preachy, carrying a transcendental verisimilitude.
Despite a youthful exuberance that often overshadows his vocal performance, the buds of a soon to be blossoming lyricist are there in Ghostface Killah’s rough-hewn rhymes, particularly in his capacity for “kicking the fly cliches,” that is, compartmentalizing the ennui of drug dealing into a blistering string of nouns (shots – knots – spots – hot). His counterpoint lies in Method Man, the group’s front man pro tempore, who would rather take drugs than castigate them, his blunt-scorched throat lending credibility to those claims. His capacity for churning through kitschy catch phrases and interpolations is evident on his solo single, which strikes an interesting dichotomy between the two layers of his schizo persona: half cackling sadist, half channel-surfing burnout.
Handling production whole-hog, RZA lends a queasy menace to 36 Chambers, crafting sounds that echo from beneath the earth, rippling with water-damaged bits of piano and symphonic string, either played at the wrong speed or damaged beyond recognition. Fuzzy snippets of Kung fu flicks act as bookends, each airy swish of exaggerated jab or sword swing taking on new life, postmodern in its recontextualization, changing meaning to match the theme of the accompanying track. These disjointed passages of combat and proclamations of violence are especially chilling when paired with quick, clipped horn breaks and the atonal clang of woodblock, channeling malice when left unfiltered and curt against the vocals. No other forms of percussion are organic, always warped or filtered to add a supernatural ghastliness to the slam of a tenement door or the howl of the wind in the trees. The resulting creation is primitive despite its high-minded artifice, making for beats that stutter and stumble like they were pounded out on hollow buckets or thick phone books. The influence still stems from the soul and jazz that proceed it, but everything is filtered through RZA’s frame of reference, burying the past beneath a craggy layer of grit.
“Clan in da Front” understands this marriage of disparate concepts, breaking into two distinct, autonomous portions. The first beat is decidedly less accessible, slowing a bass guitar sample down to a bruised stagger, lethargic enough to make each finger pluck audible, releasing its own agonized moan. The faint hum of a swarm of bees hovers above the low-end, personifying the vicious visuals militantly chanted by RZA and reproduced by his soldiers (“Wu-Tang Killa Bees, we on a swarm”). Each member and affiliate is named and accounted for, bellowing in compliance, preparing for battle, both physically and within the trappings of genre. The movements are separated by the magnified “shing” of a sword as if removed from a sheath, morphing into a jolly, drunken piano joint, stuttering awkwardly on the last note of the loop. A swirling “woo” fills the gaps between these jagged notes, adding a hallucinatory aura to the proceedings, deliberately contradicted by the elaborate vocal display of The Genius (also known simply as Gza), who rhymes uncontested for the remainder of the track. Emphasizing every “fuck” with pursed lips and a copious amount of saliva, Gza moves swiftly out of sheer excitement, littering his lines with allusions to pop and politics, just subtle enough to keep the anointed happy and leave the rest of us to our encyclopedias [Ed. – Who the hell remembers Geraldine Ferraro?]. He’s a connoisseur of culture and superior linguist, but never is he more proficient than when disrespecting an opponent. His second verse is a devastating display of combative lyricism, lashing out at industry nepotism, dilettante MCs and cultural cows with the utmost meticulousness, much like the slice of a sharpened sword, which he so lovingly references.
Gza’s moments of belligerence are Wu-Tang at their most quotable, but thinking of the Clan as talented tough guys is reductive and only half of the picture. Nostalgic passages on “Can It Be All So Simple” and “Tearz” brilliantly display the bittersweet nature of days remembered, reflecting on love, loss and poverty without inhibition. Hearing RZA recount his younger brother’s final moments, as the Wonder Bread fell from the boy’s clenched fist and warm blood pooled on the pavement, are hauntingly specific and genuinely distressing. Gone is the objective separation between writer/audience and entertainment, leaving behind an authentic portrayal of the permanence and damnable nature of violence. The fact that an emotional catharsis of this gravity is present on an otherwise rowdy piece of work is a testament to the magnitude of talent on display.