Arts and Entertainment

Wu Tang: A Return to Former Glory?

“Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues” was produced with the fans of Wu-Tang’s former glory days in mind, hence the album title’s allusion to a saga —the legacy of hip-hop’s golden age.

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By Joyce Liao

Enter the Wu-Tang

There are few greater introductions in hip-hop than RZA’s “Bring da mother[expletive] ruckus!” in Wu-Tang’s acclaimed debut album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” Since their entry into the scene in 1993, Wu-Tang did precisely that, as the group established a reputation as hip-hop’s arguably most legendary and talented group of rappers. Hailing from the projects of Staten Island, Wu-Tang was one of the most prominent players in the ‘90s East Coast hip-hop renaissance known for its dark, gritty sound and lyrical dexterity.

In spite of the success of groups that preceded them, such as the bad-boy groups NWA and Run-DMC, Wu-Tang aimed for a more cerebral approach, focusing on lyricism and wordplay and compromising aggression, catchiness, and volume in favor of a more stripped, minimalist sound to complement their lyrics. Wu-Tang’s songs are heavily influenced by the members’ experiences with gang violence, drug abuse, and poverty in the housing projects of Staten Island, which are ripe with storytelling possibilities.

A hallmark of Wu-Tang is the frequent references to kung fu and martial arts films in their work, which add an additional poetic layer to their lyrics. By incorporating Chinese philosophies and schools of thought, Wu-Tang created an unusual blend of Western and Eastern cultures, which was considered groundbreaking for hip-hop at the time. Elements of violent gangster rap were juxtaposed with Eastern themes of spiritual enlightenment. Wu-Tang also drew inspiration from the swift, brutal, and calculated blows seen in martial arts, metaphorically adopting those techniques into their unique style of rapping and representing rap battles within their songs as “duels.” These qualities highlighted the group’s unusual articulation of storytelling and drew in many listeners.

Wu-Tang’s most notable contribution to hip-hop was their album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” While well known for its raw and violent lyrics, the album also had trademark elements that defined the group: skits, soul and R&B sampling, and knowledge of martial arts films and Eastern culture. Consequently, Wu-Tang’s debut album established an unfairly high standard for their subsequent work as a group.

The general consensus in the hip-hop community is that the solo endeavors of members of the Wu-Tang Clan far eclipse their collective efforts with the exception of “Enter the Wu-Tang.” Albums such as Ghostface Killah’s “Ironman” (1996) and Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” (1995), to list only a few, are revered as some of the genre’s greatest. In the case of Wu-Tang, the whole is less than the sum of its parts as the group gradually garnered acclaim and attention through its individual members; every member has gone on to release solo albums in his career. Wu-Tang has no shortage of rappers that are dominant forces in their own right with their defining skills, whether it’s Raekwon’s vivid and violent imagery, GZA’s unmatched lyricism and vocabulary, Ghostface Killah’s storytelling and narration, Method Man’s eclectic persona, or RZA’s talent as a producer.

The mythical status attributed to Wu-Tang is almost certainly a result of the amount of raw talent the group possesses. However, the ability to utilize each member's’ skills to its fullest potential has eluded the grasp of Wu-Tang since the release of their first album, the groundbreaking idiosyncrasies of which have long lost their novelty. Subsequent Wu-Tang albums, though unfairly held to the incredibly high bar set by their debut, were criticized for trying too hard to outdo the creativity seen in “Enter the Wu-Tang.” Producer RZA had a large role in this, as he was responsible for orchestrating the sound and thematic elements behind many of the group’s songs. RZA often attempted to re-brand the group’s image with each new album release, departing from the qualities that made “Enter the Wu-Tang” such a success. The colorful dynamics and chemistry between each member were also lost after each one of them released successful solo albums in the late ‘90s and developed their own preferences for how an album should be produced.

The Saga Continues

24 years after the release of “Enter the Wu-Tang,” the group re-emerges into the radically changed music industry of 2017 with their latest album release “Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues.” Despite a slew of album releases this past decade, Wu-Tang’s re-entry into hip-hop in 2017 holds more significance than any of their other post-“Enter the Wu-Tang” albums, many of which were considered disappointments because of the current state of hip-hop that the group refers to throughout the album. Their previous album, “A Better Tomorrow” (2014), was an unsuccessful foray into the realm of contemporary pop, which produced considerably tame results stripped of the elements that made Wu-Tang a force to reckoned with in the past.

Hip-hop has taken a completely different trajectory since the ‘90s, a period often called its golden age. This distinction is apparent with the de-emphasis on both lyricism and musicianship, hallmarks which defined the golden age. Wu-Tang’s raw sound, which incorporates R&B, soul, and simple driving beats, would alienate most listeners of contemporary hip-hop. “Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues” was produced with the fans of Wu-Tang’s former glory days in mind, hence the album title’s allusion to a saga —the legacy of hip-hop’s golden age.

An Homage to the Old School

The intro of “The Saga Continues” begins with trumpets to signal a triumphant return after a three year hiatus. It also contains a familiar Wu-Tang trait: dialogue excerpts from martial arts films. RZA then interrupts and goes on on to establish the premise of the album by alluding to Wu-Tang as the “Buck Rogers” of the 21st century, a group that awakened from their slumber and found themselves amidst an unrecognizable future.

“The Saga Continues” really takes off following the intro with “Lesson Learn’d,” one of two singles in the album. Paying homage to the hip-hop classic “Nuthin But a ‘G’ Thang” (1992) by Dr. Dre with the opening verse lyric “One, two, three and to the foh,” Inspectah Deck immediately follows with swagger characteristic of Wu-Tang in the self-praising line “I splash bravado, fast cash aficionado / Savage vandal, I’m a legend of tomorrow,” demonstrating the group’s awareness of their considerable footprint and influence on the hip-hop world.

The next song “Fast and Furious” also pays homage to an old school hip-hop legend by sampling Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya” (1994), an East Coast classic known for its ominous piano melody and simple beat. The outright violent raps in “Fast and Furious” are stylistically reminiscent of the legendary feuds and battles of hip-hop that Wu-Tang had witnessed in the past. This notably includes the well-known East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry which the group helped spark by reviving the East Coast scene with their release of “Enter the Wu-Tang.”

The musicianship of “The Saga Continues” is also one of its strongest elements reminiscent of Wu-Tang’s classic works. This includes R&B/soul sampling and traces of jazz through a driving bass line, simple beat, and a piano melody quietly buried in the background sound in lead single “People Say,” much like the melody used in the Wu-Tang classic “C.R.E.A.M” from “Enter the Wu-Tang.”

However, the dark, gritty sound prevalent in early Wu-Tang works has a diminished presence in “The Saga Continues.” Rather, Wu-Tang draws musical influence from its fellow East Coast contemporaries and borrows heavily from jazz-centric rappers such as Nas and JAY-Z. Songs such as “If Time is Money” (Fly Navigation) and “Frozen” complement powerful basslines with an unusual array of instruments such as woodwinds and the xylophone. The album’s utilization of percussion is also a testament to its insistence on old-school sound and rejection of the rapid-fire trap beats that are ubiquitous in contemporary hip-hop. Wu-Tang consistently uses steady, snare-heavy beats to complement, not overpower, their instrumentation.

Beatdown of the New School

“People Say,” the lead single in the album, showcases the group’s dissociation from today’s social media-driven hip-hop, defined by rappers that are more in touch with mainstream pop culture. Rappers from the golden age were the antithesis to mainstream pop culture, often denying themselves a marketable image in favor of producing insightful lyrics and narratives of marginalized ghettos and projects, a side of society that was largely hidden from consumers. The biting social truths of golden age hip-hop are mostly absent in hip-hop and the music industry as a whole today, as making the Billboard Hot 100 has become a disproportionately larger measure of success than producing thoughtful lyrics and musicianship.

Keeping this in mind, “People Say” is a standout in the album. Method Man’s opening verse in particular contains a few gems, one of which is “Nah see I don’t dab and I don’t nae nae / Got bottles coming out, warriors coming out and play-ay,” distancing Wu-Tang from some of the most recent hip-hop fads. Method Man takes it slow with his flow and reminds his listeners of his unquestionable authenticity in the lines “Until my heart turns cold, I’m a product of the block / We used to cook the product in the pot, add soda turn the product into rock.”

Method Man’s verse in the song “Frozen” further points out the group’s distaste for contemporary hip-hop and firmly establishes this distaste as a major theme of the album. His lines “Music is life, I ain’t into fashion or ice / I ain’t into chain snatchin’, ain’t into smackin’ a wife” and “It’s always been about the struggle, y’all just didn’t get it / My hood trouble, if y’all don’t live here then don’t visit” are self-explanatory. Method Man criticizes rappers today for losing touch with the purpose of hip-hop: to evoke thoughts and emotions on social injustices, rather than to align with the trends of mainstream pop music. This sentiment is most apparent in the line “I push the limit while rappers is pushing gimmicks.”

In the song “Why Why Why,” RZA’s introductory lines “If I put my fist through the face of a racist, smack ‘em tasteless / Would I face three cases in court, locked in places? / Or shackled to a seat of a bus, a hundred of us / Life in America shouldn’t be so tough” bring to light the very questions that were asked several decades prior by many rappers. The interlude lines “No discrimination, peace and love / From generation to generation” are timely, given that the nation is being torn apart by terror attacks, debates over anthem protests, a rise of white nationalist groups, and a bitter divide between political parties.

Closing Comments

“Wu-Tang: The Saga Continues” shines in its homages to golden age hip-hop and its criticisms of contemporary hip-hop. The album’s social commentary and use of vivid narratives are also refreshing returns to hip-hop’s lyrical and poetic prowess that was the norm years ago. The album functioned as a collection of lyrics that showcased the unique skills and styles of each member that were present in each verse they took over, much like in “Enter the Wu-Tang”.

“The Saga Continues” is ultimately a success because it draws influence from Wu-Tang’s early works and does not deviate from the formula that originally rocketed them to fame. Given the state of hip hop today, Wu-Tang did not need to produce a groundbreaking album like they did in 1993. Rather, “Wu-Tang: The Saga Returns” is exactly the album that many rappers now need to take note of; this is how you do hip-hop.