Thousands of hip-hop brows are furrowed in scrutiny: Where did Wu-Tang go wrong? Even the most faithful Clan disciples now speculate that another great rap empire is losing its creative foothold. Last year's Wu-Tang Clan double album declared them to be Forever, but lately a series of diminishing solo returns by the group's many members has had the predictable effect of devaluing the brand name.
Not that Wu-Tang hasn't produced questionable spinoff material from the start. After the nine-MC collective's 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), most members secured separate record deals with various major labels, a move that quickly passed into industry legend. Method Man's limp Tical was the first solo shot in 1994. But it was soon overshadowed by well-constructed, highly conceptualized works by Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx) and the Genius/GZA (Liquid Swords). Taken together, the albums elaborated on the Wu's intricate comic-book mythology of Mafia lore, kung fu movies, and surround-sound blaxploitation. But after undercooked efforts by Wu second-stringers Cappadonna and Killah Priest, and a solid but critically underrated second try by Method Man, the group's fan base was ripe for a revival.
Instead, Wu puttered artistically as its fortunes grew. We should have sensed something was wrong after a series of pointless cameos by Raekwon on cuts by everyone from Slick Rick to OutKast. Then there was the RZA's own RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, which proved a phenomenal mess of hype, gimmickry, and amateurish synth strings. Never mind all that, Wu's hard-core fans said, two of the group's biggest talents were slated for summer '99 releases: the Genius and Inspecta Deck. The followup to the Genius's lyrically intricate debut was said to be more of the same, but better.
Unfortunately, it's just more of the same. Beneath the Surface is a disaster of simplistic production and unfocused songcraft. By contrast Inspecta Deck's Uncontrolled Substance ain't half bad, but it's still a little too close to exactly that. Only Deck rivals the Genius in the Clan lyrics department; his grittiest rhymes have a down-to-earth quality missing from his mystical peers. "Lovin' You," the requisite Wu ghetto-girl dedication, shines as an example of the MC's ability to capture an everyday incident in shorthand. "Flashin' the fly fashion/On the 2 train," he raps. "Words soothin' her brain/There's the 2 'cross the platform, she's 'bout to exchange." But with the exception of kinetic cuts such as "9th Chamber" and "Rec Room," most of these sparse tracks adhere to virtually the same static, midtempo beat. Even a strategically placed dropout here or there might have worked wonders.
Speaking of wonders, I can't help but puzzle over why the more artistically advanced members of Wu-Tang tolerate the presence of someone as talentless as the Ol' Dirty Bastard, who has his own new solo product out this month. While I suspect it's nepotism (isn't he somebody's cousin?), others suggest that his foolish outbursts and reckless public behavior attract attention to the Wu the way Flava Flav (or Professor Griff) once did for Public Enemy. Maybe so, but much of ODB's sophomore splurge, Nigga Please, sounds like the production work of an R&B hack who just now heard Doggystyle. And beats are only half the problem. Ol' Dirt Dog sinks to previously unexplored depths of grade school depravity here. "I'm the cunt-breath, asshole eater/And if you let me physically eat it, it only gets [belch]," is a typical line; "I want pussy for free" is a typical chorus. (Rolling Stone called this "African American nihilism at its most resolute." What the hell does that mean?)
One might expect there to be some underlying method to ODB's badness, but amazingly, it's all executed with absolutely--and resolutely--no craft or point. Perhaps, given this Wu vet's acclaim, it's fruitless to attempt an evaluation of Ol' Dirty as an MC. If there is anything that he does deliberately, it is to obliterate the yardstick by which one measures, say, any of the other Wu-Tang members who maintain an image but also pride themselves on lyrics. Burping when he could just close a couplet, slurring every other line, and cursing like a Tourette's-afflicted sailor are just deflecting strategies: Judged purely as a rapper, ODB sucks. Is he an entertainer? That depends on whether you're amused by a cartoon of alcoholism, misogyny, and self-destruction.
Far more engaging is Wu-Tang member U-God's new, quietly released Redemption, which, along with Deck's Substance, marks a return to the collective's dedicated lyricism. U-God is a master of the visual non sequitur, dropping rhymes on the order of "Eyes hot/Cyclops/Sidewalk boulders/Called shop of horrors/Lyrics just smokin' in my holster." The rugged, hectic vibe U-God creates resurrects some of the mystique of earlier, more thematic Wu projects. Where Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was Wu-gangsta, and Ghostface's Iron Man was Wu-soul, U-God's gruff, forceful voice and energetic beats are the closest thing to Wu-rock you're likely to hear. If the fact that I received the album on a white label cassette with no track listings or liner notes less than a month before its street date is any indication, U-God's level of promotion is considerably less than, say, the new Method Man/Redman album (yet another Wu offshoot). That's too bad. It might give old fans a little hope.