Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Wu-Tang Clan

  • Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) [Loud/RCA, 1993] A-
  • Wu-Tang Forever [Loud, 1997] **
  • The W [Loud, 2000] A-
  • Iron Flag [Loud, 2001] ***
  • 8 Diagrams [SRC/Universal Motown, 2007] A-
  • A Better Tomorrow [Warner Bros., 2014] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) [Loud/RCA, 1993]
They are or have been, if not "gangstas," at the very least dealers. But note that the slice of life where they doctor their wares with baking soda is decisively jokier than the tragic-sounding hit where they sell them on the corner. They aren't just grander than their West Coast opposite numbers, they're also goofier, and both are improvements. Expect the masterwork this album's reputation suggests and you'll probably be disappointed--it will speak directly only to indigenous hip hoppers. Expect a glorious human mess, as opposed to the ominous platinum product of their opposite numbers, and you'll realize the dope game isn't everyone's dead-end street. A-

Wu-Tang Forever [Loud, 1997]
the five per cent nation of Oscar aspirations ("The M.G.M.," "For Heavens Sake") **

The W [Loud, 2000]
Can't swear they've taken their moral vision much beyond "Handle your bid and kill no kids," although only rarely does it get worse and I like the bit where Yacub talk segues into doo-wop cliché as if it's all the same old song--which song then segues into tales of chattel slavery. But for all its rapped W-Unity, this is RZA's record almost as much as the so-hypnotic-it's-slept-on Ghost Dog. He serves up a bounty of song-centered musique trouvée and stomach-churning beats from anywhere--sleighbells and box-cutters and moans and explosions and drums and horns and huh? and violins and Esther Phillips coming in at the right wrong moment every goddamn time. Far from straining, he's gone sensei, achieving a craft in which the hand leads the mind. Anyway, that's how it sounds--which since this is music is what counts. A-

Iron Flag [Loud, 2001]
great-not-grand beats, worried raps about the ultimate value of the Wu and all its holdings ("Iron Flag," "Dashing [Reasons]") ***

8 Diagrams [SRC/Universal Motown, 2007]
Bogarted by RZA just like Raekwon says, and good. With his thumping beats and cinematic sweep, only RZA can capture the great Wu dichotomy, in which still-the-same-n**** rough stuff--"knuckles is brass, start snuffing you fast," "two grand'll handle your mouth"--coexists naturally with mystagogic symbology, apple martinis and casual references to Croatia and Liberia. It's RZA whose bird tweets and femme chorus captivate the "ears of corn and heads of lettuce" his one-man hymn to Allah calls out, RZA whose "hip-hop renaissance" leaps lightly from Benetton to some pistol grip I don't understand. The second greatest track belongs to George Clinton, the greatest to George Harrison, brought back from the dead by Ghostface Killah's tear-tattooed tale of not murdering somebody's nephew in Pathmark, just beating him comatose. But the album belongs to the hip-hop hippie. And an album it definitely is. A-

A Better Tomorrow [Warner Bros., 2014]
Less a tour de force than a show of force, this is the music that can happen when a master producer gets to deploy nine skilled veteran voices--although the departed ODB is sampled, and effectively too, it's Cappadonna who fills out the cipher. If you're counting, rough-smooth-soulful Method Man and rat-a-tat-tat Masta Killa step up twice as often as Ghostface and Raekwon. But everybody's in the house, everybody raps better than he rhymes, nobody rhymes badly, and RZA is the man. Verbally, in the year a white Staten Island cop martyred a black Staten Island loosies vendor and a white Staten Island cop-turned-felon represented Staten Island in Congress, the album's vision of African-American life is longer on community than getting yours, but it's hardly unmaterialistic--mature, not respectable, as why the fuck should it be? Musically, it's almost utopian. A-