Happy 20th Anniversary to Wu-Tang Clan’s sophomore album Wu-Tang Forever, originally released June 3, 1997.
The best skit ever recorded for a Wu-Tang Clan album is the intro to the second half of their sophomore album, Wu-Tang Forever. The “announcement” is a two-minute screed by Robert “The RZA” Diggs on the state of hip-hop in 1997 and the Wu-Tang Clan’s place within it.
“There’s a lot of shit that’s coming out and the shit’s been weak,” RZA begins, then decries the rap/R&B hybrids that had become the flavor of the time. “Fuck that; this is MCing right here,” he rages. “This is hip-hop…Yo, this is true hip-hop you listening to right here, in the purest form.” He further rails against “Cat-in-the-Hat ass…Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose, simple minded” rappers. Gary “The GZA” Grice, co-architect of the Wu, provides back-up shit-talking, adding, “Stop running up on n&%$#as with all that wack shit, talking about you ‘MC.’” RZA then admonishes rappers and producers for biting the Wu-Tang Clan’s style, lingo, and production, then finishes with a call to “get ready for the Triumph, ’cause the Gods is here to take over this shit.”
Later, at the end of “Bells of War,” RZA gives another extended soliloquy, which he repeated throughout the promotional campaign for the album: “You don’t even gotta go to summer school: Pick up the Wu-Tang double CD and you'll get all the education you need this year.” He predicts that most won’t be able to fully decipher Wu-Tang Forever until the year 2000, which he says is when the Wu-Tang will be ready to release another group album. “That shit is going to come back like a comet,” he promises.
These sentiments were supposed to be the Wu-Tang Clan’s mission statement for 1997 and beyond. This was supposed to be the year of the Wu. The crew of nine lyrical and musical assassins had burst onto the scene in the fall of 1993 and grabbed the music industry by the throat, subsequently spending close to four years solidifying their legendary status.
Wu-Tang Forever was conceived, designed, and recorded to be the Clan’s definitive statement of dominance. It was designed as a living artifact to be researched and puzzled over for years to come, and was supposed to cement their legacy as the greatest rap group of all time. After all of their hard work, the Wu-Tang Forever album, a double album released 20 years ago, was supposed to be the Wu-Tang Clan’s extended victory lap.
So, what happened? Why did an album that was supposed to be genre-defining, not change the game? The album sold well, certified quadruple platinum and selling over two million copies in the United States (since it’s a double album, each disc is counted separately per album sale). It was reasonably well-reviewed by critics. But while Wu-Tang Forever was created with grand intentions, few people consider it the group’s best album. It’s not considered by many to be the best hip-hop album of 1997.
Regardless, Wu-Tang Forever is an impressive album. It showcased the immense breadth and depth of the group’s lyrical skills and production styles. It’s sprawling and messy, yet often precise in its execution. It is not quite the towering achievement that the crew envisioned that it would become, but it’s a very good album nonetheless, and one that still holds up two decades later.
If any hip-hop artist/group would be “justified” in recording and releasing a double-album, it’s the Wu-Tang Clan. The two hip-hop superstars of the ’90s, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, had previously released their own double albums—All Eyez on Me (1996) and Life After Death (1997), respectively—to great commercial success and acclaim. However, both of these albums felt bloated and padded. Wu-Tang was a group with nine separate members with nine separate and distinctive styles and voices; they needed to spread themselves out a bit. And the group indeed spreads out their talents across 27 songs and a little over 112 minutes (29 songs and 123 minutes if you count the international version).
When Wu-Tang first began its reign of dominance, the crew was anchored by RZA’s trademark dusty production, which often consisted of sped-up soul samples culled from the Stax and Hi Records catalogue, music and snatches dialogue taken from obscure ’70s and early ’80s kung-fu flicks, and crispy drum tracks. But with Wu-Tang Forever, RZA began to modify his sound and production techniques. He began to rely on synth-based production, as well as utilizing strings and live and digital orchestration. The shift may be related to one of the many rumored floodings of the Wu-Tang Mansion’s basement, or it could have been merely brought about by the natural evolution of his production mind. Truthfully, the change in sound isn’t always for the best, as some of RZA’s contributions to Wu-Tang Forever feel over-produced.
Another shift with the production side of the album is that RZA was no longer handling the entire load. A little over a quarter of the double album’s beats are provided by other Wu-affiliated producers, including five tracks by Selwin “4th Disciple” Bougard, two by Derek “True Master” Harris, and one by Jason “Inspectah Deck” Hunter. The variety was a good choice, as the soundscapes often serve as a palette cleanser for RZA’s heavier fare.
The strongest component of Wu-Tang Forever is the lyrics. Much of the album is a lyrical clinic by nine MCs at the height of their powers. Just to remind those who don’t know, the album features the talents of RZA, GZA, Deck, Clifford “Method Man” Smith, Dennis “Ghostface Killah” Coles, Corey “Raekwon” Woods, Russell “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Jones, Lamont “U-God” Hawkins, and Jamel “Masta Killa” Irief as the core members. The album also features verses from frequent Wu-collaborators Darryl “Cappadonna” Hill and Patrick “Streetlife” Charles, as well as the vocal stylings of Tekitha Washington, the group’s resident songstress.
It would be extremely easy to paper this review with quotables from this album. All nine core MCs contribute some of their finest recorded verses of their careers. It’s hard to narrow down which Clan member shines the brightest. The GZA is always a good place to start, as he remains one of the best MCs to ever touch a mic. It’s GZA who has the first verse on the album with “Reunited,” setting things off with fierce lines like, “From metaphorical parables to fertilize the Earth / Wicked n&%$#as come, try to burglarize the turf / Scatting off soft-ass beats, them n&%$#s rap happily / Tragically, that style deteriorate rapidly.”
He drops his best verse on “As High As Wu-Tang Get,” a buoyant, bassline-driven track produced by the RZA. After an energetic chorus by the ODB, GZA first encourages aspiring MCs to say more with less (“Keep it brief, son: half short and twice strong”) and then exploding into a 22-bar verse: “Wu slay, regardless to whom or what: five mics, five nights / Hang him from the balcony, drop 25 flights.” GZA is featured prominently throughout the first half of the double album, but sadly all but disappears on the album’s second half; he raps all of seven bars total on disc 2.
Wu-Tang Forever is also the coming-out party of sorts for Inspectah Deck. He contributes an all-timer of a lyrical performance, though he appears on only eight tracks on the album. Deck earned a lot of justified props for his “I bomb atomically” verse on “Triumph,” considered not only one of the best opening verses of all time but also one of the best rap verses ever. Personally, I put his opening verse on “For Heaven’s Sake” right up there in both categories. Over soaring orchestral strings and sped-up soul vocals, Deck hold’s court: “I circulate the tri-state and vibrate beyond the Richter / Fly sisters flock when they spot this live n#$@a / The crowd seducer, black your third eye before I lose ya / Verbal high, I leave styes in the eyes of Medusa.”
Later, on “A Better Tomorrow,” where the group expresses the dangers of being seduced by the thrills and money of the street life, it’s Deck who shines the brightest. He paints vivid pictures of the hopelessness and despair that he both witnessed and helped to create as a street-level drug dealer, before vowing to leave the negativity behind, explaining, “I sold bottles of sorrow, then chose poems and novels”
Due to various legal and personal troubles, the ever-charismatic Ol’ Dirty Bastard has scant presence on the album, contributing a few brief verses, a chorus or two, and some grade-A ad-libs/trash-talking (the aforementioned “Triumph”). Besides promising women that he’ll rub their asses in moonshine, ODB’s stand-out moment is on “Dog Shit,” his boisterous and belligerent solo track. ODB is in rare form, bellowing his sexually explicit rhymes towards women he wishes to defile: “Here comes Rover, sniffing at your ass / But pardon me, bitch, as I shit on your grass / That means, ho, you been shitted on / I’m not the first dog that's shitted on your lawn.”
Wu-Tang’s Abbot/informal leader, the RZA, also deserves a great deal of respect for his lyrical contribution to Wu-Tang Forever. Though known more for production, RZA really grew into his own as a lyricist by the time the double-album dropped. Though I may not love the overall shift in his production style, here he lyrically excels to new heights. “Impossible” is best known for the heart-wrenching closing verse by Ghostface Killah, which RZA himself considers the best verse Wu-Tang has ever written. However, RZA’s lead-off verse on the track is incredibly compelling as well. He pledges to fight evil in the face of harrowing odds, referencing biblical apostles, little-known comic book series, and the Transformers: “My occupation to stop the inauguration of Satan / Some claim that it was Reagan, so I come to slay men / Like Bartholomew, cause every particle is physical article / Was diabolical to the last visible molecule / A space knight like Rom, consume planets like Unicron / Blasting photon bombs from the arm like Galvatron.”
Although it only appears on the international versions of the album, RZA’s solo track “Sunshower” is another of the album’s best songs. Made up of a pair of marathon length verses by the Abbott, the track serves as a lengthy lamentation on the state of society, a description of RZA’s philosophy and pursuit of knowledge, and an in-depth look at the early years of the Wu-Tang Clan.
I’ve given a lot of words here to individual performances and verses on Wu-Tang Forever, but it should not be lost that some of the album’s best moments come when the Wu works together as a group. The aforementioned “Triumph” showcases each Clan member’s individual skill, while “A Better Tomorrow” demonstrates the group’s ability to come together and build around a cohesive theme. “Deadly Melody” allows seven members of the Clan to continuously trade verses and lines, each of the distinct styles meshing to create one continuous flow. “It’s Yourz,” the album’s second single and closing track to Disc 1, is the closest the album has to an accessible party jam/club single. It features relatively care-free, yet sharp verses from five members of the Clan celebrating their dominance over the realm of hip-hop.
Wu-Tang Forever also honors the early days of the Wu, when the Clan members flexed over dusty yet menacing soundscapes. “Hellz Wind Staff” is an up-tempo track, produced by 4th Disciple, which takes things back to the days of the fatal flying guillotine, interspersing samples of Love’s “Signed DC” with snippets of action and dialogue from the obscure kung-fu flick Unbeaten 28. “Heaterz,” produced by True Master, evokes the sound of Clan members rapping over re-freaked soul samples, as Raekwon, Deck, U-God, Cappadonna, and ODB all flex over Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Giving Up.”
Portions of the album also evoke the Wu’s heavy Mafioso-influenced style and delivery, such as “MGM.” The track features Raekwon and Ghostface trading two-bar stanzas while describing a major fight night occurring at the song’s namesake. The song builds on the pair’s legendary chemistry together and serves an extension of Rae’s massively successful solo album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
My personal favorite track on the album is a song that’s rarely ever mentioned: “Duck Seazon.” Nestled midway through the latter half of the second disc, the Wu uses the track to settle scores and decry those who doubted their potential and now try to emulate their style. The beat, provided by the RZA, is spare, consisting of stripped down a guitar loop, sparse drums, and muted keys. Raekwon’s pair of verses bookend the track, as he both bats lead-off and then wraps things up. RZA’s contempt is palpable as he spits, “You want a pound crab? Nah, let his hand swing / I ought to punch a hole in his palm with these pointy-ass rings.” Method Man follows-up with perhaps his best verse on the album, rapping, “You want it n&%$#s? It’s yours, the flavors raw / What the fuck you think I’m flowing for? It’s rhyme and reason / Bite the bullet, n&%$#s is fowl and it’s duck season / We at odds ’til we even, motherfucker.”
There isn’t much fat on Wu-Tang Forever, but that doesn’t mean a few things couldn’t be slightly trimmed. “Maria” is a fairly uncreative tale of a local woman of ill repute that services many people throughout the neighborhood, infecting them with STDs. Other songs have dope individual verses but don’t come together as whole. On “Little Ghetto Boy,” Raekwon leads off with a powerful tale cautioning youth against getting caught up in illicit activities, but Cappadonna follows it up with a middling verse about rappers that talk trash and can’t back it up.
One thing that definitely holds Wu-Tang Forever back is that it begins and ends with the album’s worst moments. The first disc begins with “Wu-Revolution,” a seven-minute sermon by Poppa Wu, the Wu Tang’s Clan long-serving spiritual advisor. I don’t doubt that Poppa Wu is an intelligent man whose presence with Wu-Tang Clan has been important to the crew’s mental and spiritual enlightenment, but his interminable explanation of his life philosophy causes the album to stumble out of the gate.
Wu-Tang Forever later ends with three tracks that should have been left on the cutting room floor. First is “Black Shampoo,” a U-God solo track and the closest thing to a “for the ladies” song that’s featured on the album. The track essentially consists of four minutes of U-God listing off various skin care and beauty products, which will be part of the “sensual” massage he prepares to administer to his girl. The result is awkward and unenjoyable. “Second Coming” is a sluggish and meandering solo showcase for Tekitha. She is an enjoyable vocalist on various hooks throughout the album (notably “Impossible”), but this song drags horribly. Things then sputter to the end with “The Closing,” which is two and half minutes of an a cappella Raekwon muttering themes already expressed earlier on the album with much more clarity and energy. Either “Heaterz” or “Bells of War” would be much preferable final statements.
The Wu-Tang did indeed keep RZA’s promise on “Bells of War,” returning in late 2000 with The W, a similarly dark, but shorter affair. The three years in between albums were considered Wu-Tang Clan’s first “troubled” period. After a disastrous and aborted arena tour opening up for Rage Against the Machine, it seemed like the group fell into quiet disillusion. Rap was finally gaining mainstream acceptance, but instead of Wu-Tang, the faces of hip-hop were the very types of artists that they mocked for trying to water down the music. The Shiny Suit Era was in full-swing, and mainstream radio and video were favoring songs that sampled ’80s hits and re-purposed their hooks. A brooding, lyrically dense album like Wu-Tang Forever wasn’t going to steal many spins from songs like “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” and “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.”
The album definitely had an impact on future rap superstars. In 2013, Drake released the song “Wu-Tang Forever,” drawing inspiration from “It’s Yourz.” There was even talk about members of the Wu-Tang appearing on the remix, which never materialized.
Wu-Tang Forever is an album that shot for the moon and didn’t quite make it. But it was still a massive undertaking loaded with tons of ambition, and the architects did a lot more right than they were given credit for at the time. It might not have been an adequate substitute for summer education, but it still provided a lot of lyrical food for thought.