Hip hop is about as static as a jazz solo: Its changes are rapid enough to lose every great rapper from Big Daddy Kane to Chuck D. But the Wu-Tang Clan, now eight years ancient, present an exceptional case. Since their debut in 1993, the Staten Islanders have represented a trend unto themselves--a trend only they can buck. And that's exactly what they have proceeded to do since cementing their grip on the underground with 1998's Wu-Tang Forever. A tour with Rage Against the Machine went sour when Clan members missed several dates. Then Ol' Dirty Bastard went on a criminal rampage, and Ghostface Killah did a six-month stint at Rikers Island for robbery. Far worse was their aesthetic rap sheet: a parade of mediocre solo releases following the trail of headlines.
Up through Forever, Wu-Tang producer the RZA had overseen all of the crew's projects and established the trademark Wu sound: sliced-up kung fu movie clips, dissonant tones, neck-snapping percussion. Thereafter, the sonic chef began relinquishing production duties to other cooks, unleashing a thoroughly unremarkable mélange of Wu albums. Method Man's latest sounds uninspired and amorphous. The GZA and Raekwon now come off as musically incoherent, lyrically unprovocative. The U-God and Inspectah Deck's albums are just boring, while ODB's overrated throwaway of a comedy album feels like one of those "this is your brain on drugs" spots. As Puff Daddy learned, using "forever" in an album title is always a bad idea.
Now the RZA returns to production form with Ghostface Killah's second solo release, Supreme Clientele (Epic), a record that will at least allow the Wu-Tang to remain relevant, if not essential. Like most of the RZA's best work, the disc moves like a film, its skits giving the tracks a thematic unity missing from most RZA-less Wu-Tang records. The routines are lifted from Ironman comics, whose protagonist, Tony Starks, gives Ghostface Killah a civilian alias. Between such scenes, the RZA, along with producers Mathematics and Ju-Ju of the Beatnuts, props up the MC's stream-of-consciousness flow with a constantly mutating soundscape. From the driving drums of "Buck 50" to the harrowing strings of "One" and the deep soul skat on "Woo Banga," no two tracks on Clientele sound the same.
There's only one real problem with Ghostface Killah's new album: Ghostface Killah. On Wu-Tang's earlier recordings, the rapper seemed like a healthy compromise between the ODB's irrational rants and the GZA's philosophical contemplation, spitting his lyrics with uncommon passion. Now he seems to be slouching toward lyrical dementia. Ghostface sounds like he never met a non sequitur he didn't like. Over a pounding breakbeat on "The Grain," he raps, "Wallabies, cherry noose, Kool-Aid/ten niggas call it tai chi black blades, one-hundred-dollar seats." On "Buck 50," he muses, "All up in the parrot, nose numb, real as they come/Biggie's Versaces, snow white rabbit/Hands is like photographic magic, funeral love/Movin' when we hug, don't make it a habit." The rapper sounds like Amiri Baraka tripping on bathtub acid.
When Ghostface does come up from his sea of illogic for a breath of air, you almost wish he didn't. "To my real bitches take your drawers off," he chants on "One," outlining the album's only discernable theme. "To all my high niggas, snatch her skirt off/Just in case she wanna play, get up in that bitch face/And tell her Ghost said, Take your clothes off!"
Ultimately, these workouts don't announce much more than the RZA's presence at the controls, and his continuing sonic flair. It remains to be seen whether this represents a Wu-Tang rebirth or the final flicker of a dying star.
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