If the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that there’s always a market for a new album by the Wu-Tang Clan. Close to 25 years after releasing their first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers (1993), their name stills carries a lot of psychological weight with their fan base and the realm of hip-hop as a whole. And this is after a poorly received “final” album in the form of 2014’s A Better Tomorrow. Now, close to three years after A Better Tomorrow was released, their newest album, The Saga Continues hits the shelves, and boy, it’s been a bumpy ride to get here.
The Saga Continues was actually the third “official” Wu-Tang album to be announced since A Better Tomorrow, but it’s so far the only one that’s been available to the general public. Most know about the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin fiasco, the Wu-Affiliated Cilvaringz produced-project that surfaced in 2015. The sole copy of the album was sold in an auction, with a then anonymous bidder purchasing the album for $2 million. Everything completely went to shit when it was revealed the album’s buyer was Martin Shkreli, otherwise known as the aspiring pharma robber-baron, recently convicted felon, and literally the most hated person in the country at the time the album was sold.
Things kept getting uglier, with Shkreli sniping with numerous Wu members and acting like an obnoxious tool whenever possible. The Clan eventually decided to donate all proceeds of the album’s sale to AIDS research to save face. To add even further indignity, in August, after Shkreli was convicted for securities fraud, he put the album up for sale on eBay. The winning bid turned out to be a little over $1 million, but it remains unclear whether the sale was legitimate.
There are now even allegations that Once Upon a Time in Shaolin isn’t even a “real” Wu-Tang Clan album after all, but rather a compilation by Cilvaringz that just happened to feature verses by all of the core members of the Clan. This claim was first posited in an article in Bloomberg, where various Wu affiliates and their manager maintain that all the verses for the album were secured with the idea that they were being used for a Cilvaringz album.
Regardless, just after Shkreli’s conviction for securities fraud, RZA announced the impending release of The Saga Continues, causing everyone to sit up and take notice once again. It’s not clear if a different album—a Ghostface-helmed project that RZA announced in early 2016—even exists anymore or if any material was ever recorded for it.
The Saga Continues is produced entirely by Ronald “Allah Mathematics” Bean. In the press release revealing the album’s existence, RZA said he was handing the reins to the Wu affiliated producer and DJ (who also designed the Wu-Tang logo). The first single “People Say,” featuring verses from four core Clan members and frequent collaborator Redman, was well-received. It seemed possible that the Clan was actually re-emerging, casting off the shadows of the Once Upon a Time… disaster.
But, if we’re being honest, The Saga Continues isn’t a Wu-Tang Clan album either. Or at least it doesn’t sound like one. What it sounds like is a producer-driven compilation that Mathematics put together featuring verses from many of the Clan members, which has been re-purposed and branded as a Wu-Tang Clan album after the fact. Mathematics has in fact recorded four other albums like this under his own name, and The Saga Continues sounds like a re-packaged fifth.
In fact, The Saga Continues has more in common with the Chamber Music (2009) and Legendary Weapons (2011) compilations than Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). These were a pair of albums put together by a production team that included M.O.P.’s Fizzy Womack. Much like those two albums, many songs on The Saga Continues are either solo tracks by core Clan members, or feature only one verse from a Wu emcee and the remaining verses by other guests.
All of this doesn’t make The Saga Continues a bad album. In fact, it’s a perfectly serviceable compilation that carries the added weight of being marketed as a Wu-Tang Clan reunion. Once you remove that weight, it stands as what it is: a reasonably enjoyable album featuring contributions by nearly all of the members of the Wu-Tang Clan. All of the core members make an appearance, with the exception of U-God; contrary to previous reports, GZA is along for the ride, albeit briefly.
As a producer, Mathematics is capable. He has a long history of producing for the Wu, contributing to Clan member solo projects and albums for the group as a whole since the late ’90s. While A Better Tomorrow was often hampered by RZA’s over-wrought live instrumentation, Mathematics opts for a “cleaner,” sample-based sound. Unfortunately, it’s occasionally too clean. The string and keyboard heavy sample arrangements can be good, but sometimes don’t sound quite right for a Wu-Tang Clan album.
Like most Wu-related albums, the lyrical performances remain the core strength. However, it’s pretty clear which artists on the album are legends and which still aren’t ready for prime time. These D-listers would be more at home on a, well, Mathematics compilation.
The album starts off strong with “Lesson Learn’d,” featuring Inspektah Deck and Redman flowing over soaring strings and vocals. Deck sets it off with his opening salvo, rapping, “I splash bravado, fast cash aficionado / Savage vandal, I’m a legend of tomorrow / Painting the truth, here's proof, ain’t it the truth / So ill a n%$#a spit with a containment suit.” He also manages to throw shade at Shkreli and his price gouging habits. Meanwhile, Redman, contributes another in his long line of exceptional guest verses, as he raps, “Throw your hands up, let’s tear the bar up / So much bud I started sweating cigar guts / And these white folks love me like a Starbucks / Fuck with one dude, you gotta fuck with all us.”
One consistent stand-out emcee on the album is Method Man. It’s odd that he told Spin (through a publicist) that he wasn’t “involved [with the album] enough to make a comment,” since of the core Clan members, he’s the one who appears the most throughout The Saga Continues. Method Man has consistently given some of his best performances away from his solo albums, and he continues that pattern here. On “If Time Is Money,” he drops a single marathon verse over lush strings and spare vibraphone hits, rapping, “It’s not a mystery who shot Ricky, but where the difference / Between the Tré and the dough, boy, we bred different / So bear witness, this can leave you with head missing / If y’all can hear me, I guarantee you the feds listening / So I be spitting in barcode, nothing left in the tap, dog / And after the last call, the bar close / This my Cohiba, cigar blow / Even Tony Stark knows the tension is thick as Wallabee Clark soles.”
“Hood Go Bang!” is a much shorter Method Man solo track (with assistance from Redman on the hook), as he kicks a dope 16-bar verse. The beat is built around a solid drum track, keyboard and vocal stabs, and punctuated by gun shots, as he rhymes, “Yep, a top shotter, Don Dada, rhyme proper / Might even take the ‘R’ out of brother – why bother?”
“Why Why Why” is a RZA solo track, where The Abbott kicks knowledge over a reggae-influenced track. He starts the song off strong, rapping about the struggle that many in the Black community experience trying to find justice in America, rapping, “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.”
“Pearl Harbor” is another stand-out, with the departed Sean Price leading off with a verse that reminds everyone of the lyrical talent we lost with his passing. Method Man bats second, this time utilizing a more complex flow than he usually employs, as he raps, “Don’t try to Blaze with Johnny even if you got an army / Dirty money in the laundry, don’t ask why, I got my reasons / I puff that Bob Marley, might hit you with the Tommy / You can catch me in the party near the speaker not speaking.” RZA rounds out the song with a sinister verse, wrapping the track up with lines like, “Power rings like the Green Lantern, last seen in a mean Phantom / In the valley of Ohio, outside the town of Canton / Or the grotty body projects in the Killa Hills of Staten / Saw a redbone in my shower just looking like Paula Patton.”
The songs “People Say” and “If What You Say Is True” feel like the most “authentic” Wu-Tang Clan tracks, in no small part because they feature the most verses by Clan members. Both sound like they’d feel at home on an early ’00s-era Wu-Tang album. “People Say,” the album’s first single, is a slower, more soulful, piano-driven track, while “If What You Say is True” is probably the album’s strongest component, with Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Street Life, and GZA all shining on a grim, dirge-like beat.
As mentioned before, sub-par guest appearances make for bumps in The Saga Continues. Raekwon gives a vintage Wu-Gambino verse on “Fast And Furious,” but Hue Hef’s lead-off verse is unmemorable. Similarly, the momentum that Method Man and Killah Priest create on “Frozen” is deflated by an out-of-place verse by Chris Rivers. And sometimes the production hampers the album’s quality. “My Only One” features a first-rate performance by Ghostface, but it’s held back by too slick production and a vocal chorus straight out the bargain bin.
The Wu-Tang Clan have had issues releasing albums for the better part of two decades. In the last decade, the crew can’t seem to release a project without at least a few members publicly disowning it, and a few others barely contributing. It’s perhaps the inevitable reality when you’ve got a group comprised of so many strong personalities. No matter how The Saga Continues was originally conceived and no matter who recorded verses for the album, the album still says “Wu-Tang Clan” on the cover, so who am I to argue what’s official and what isn’t?
This may indeed be the new normal when it comes to the Wu-Tang Clan releasing albums. As it stands, The Saga Continues won’t be remembered as the group’s watershed moment, but it also doesn’t tarnish their legacy in any way. And that may need to be enough for now.
Notable Tracks: “Hood Go Bang!” | “If What You Say Is True” | “Lesson Learn’d” | “Pearl Harbor”