A Cloudy Tomorrow: Is the RZA Holding the Wu Back?

 

In his instant classic Hot 97 interview, Method Man clarified his frustration with the Once Upon A Time In Shaolin album. He noted that when he initially said “fuck” the album, he didn’t know the full story, and said it was both his and RZA’s fault for the mis-communication. While the issues about the mystery album’s terms were apparently resolved between the two, some larger confusion remained for many on the sideline. Why was the biggest artist of the Wu Tang Clan in the dark about the one of a kind project he was on? Why was he tweeted the details?

This was yet another puzzling incident in what has been an underwhelming epilogue for the Wu-Tang Clan. The 9-Man(+) army has a catalog that’s as solidified as it gets in hip hop. The Wu never have to collectively unsheathe their swords again to be considered legends. The problem is that they’ve been pushing out projects, but the results haven’t quite been up to par. The infighting and subpar musical output is disappointing to the Wu fanbase. What’s at the crux of this? Can it be that it was all so simple?

The beauty of the Clan at it’s best was how cohesive its diverse cast of MCs were under the RZA’s guidance. It was beyond forming Voltron, it was universal. From the GZA’s razor sharp poignancy to Rae and Ghost’s impenetrable slangology, the Clan couldn’t have had more seemingly disparate parts. RZA coalesced the sun, land and water in a dusty Staten Island basement, welcoming us to the Chambers on the seventh day.

The versatility of the group’s solo catalog, fanbases and opinions are a testament to how different they are, and the RZA deserves the utmost respect for pulling off quite possibly the most difficult sonic undertaking in music history. He did it once with 36 Chambers, and doubled up with the Wu-Tang Forever epic.

But here’s where the conversation gets…difficult. © Silvio Dante

I’ve been a serious Wu Tang Fan since the age of 15. The first CD I bought was 36 Chambers. I follow the clan heavy. I’ve realized the quality of the Wu Tang albums have suffered as RZA first left behind the group’s trademark sound to experiment as Bobby Digital, then left hip hop altogether for Hollywood. Their 8 Diagrams and A Better Tomorrow albums just haven’t been up to the Wu standard, and RZA’s presence at the helm of those albums are a chief reason. As blasphemous as it sounds, the RZA is holding the Wu back right now.

While the RZA has been stepping in and out of hip hop since the mid 2000s, the other members of the Wu have stayed involved in the game, releasing high quality solo projects and showing that they still have it. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah especially are knee-deep in the game; collaborating with new artists and embracing the constantly changing sonics of hip hop. It’s no coincidence that these are the two members who happen to be the most vocal about the RZA’s stubborn demands for creative autonomy. Both Ghost and Raekwon have refused to work on the past two albums at points.

The Wu is still capable of putting together a great project with a modern yet true-to-their-roots production. Even a good old stuck in the 90s album would be beautiful, but the RZA seems unwilling. He has an admirable desire to expand sonically, but the results have left many Wu fans wanting more. He is the Abbot, and as with any leadership position, the acclaim and deification that comes with success has to be counteracted with a fair amount of the “blame” when things are below expectations.

The two times RZA has returned from Hollywood to helm a Wu project, he’s infused elements of music theory and instrumentation he’s learned while scoring films and building with musicians throughout the country. The results have been mixed. Ghostface Killah called 8 Diagrams outright “wack”, and RZA admits around 2007 “there was a strong verbal attack on me” during a group meeting that led him to say he would sever ties with them. A Better Tomorrow is better than 8 Diagrams, but still not what most Wu Tang fans want. Not only do the sonics not evoke the classic Wu sound, the end product just isn’t that good in its own right- which compounds the frustration. The personal and creative disconnect with his fellow swordsman is affecting the music.

In the 90s, RZA was essentially locked away in the studio, solely fixated on mastering the Wu sound. His proximity to the music and his Wu comrades allowed him to put together cohesive albums he was essentially consumed with perfecting. The famous five year plan called for the Wu Tang Clan to follow RZA’s word as law, but we’re many years past that time period and the other Wu members have their own creative identities. It’s difficult to replicate the magic of the past when the RZA isn’t in creative alignment with the Clan- especially when he’s unwilling to concede that others in his group have a better grasp of what it takes to succeed in today’s hip hop climate.

During the press run of A Better Tomorrow, Raekwon and Ghostface both mentioned the next Wu-Tang album. Ghostface noted that A Better Tomorrow is “not wack, whatever the case may be. But we going back to all them samples and just going bananas crazy like the first album. That’s what I’m waiting for.”

Perhaps the group has worked out a temporary resolution with RZA, but a mindset of begrudging acceptance is no creative oasis. The group’s constant references to the project “RZA’s shit” were probably a direct reflection of prominent members not fully in agreement with the creative process or results. It’s not a good sign when an artist is talking about the next project during a press conference for the current one.

To be clear, RZA’s musical genius is still ever present when he taps into the sound that made him a legend. He worked with Kanye West on his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy opus, and executive produced Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, a critically lauded renaissance piece that relied on other producers but still had the RZA’s fingerprints on it. This same format could work with the Wu Tang Clan group albums. In radio interviews during A Better Tomorrow’s production, Raekwon suggested bringing in producers such as Kanye West and others who are spawns of the RZA, able to bridge the gap between the RZA’s unbridled genius and the sounds of today.

By no means do most rational Wu fans expect another return to the 36 Chambers, but a project that flirts with what made them legends sorely needed. We will always appreciate their contribution, but our desire to support projects we’re not even sure they’re all on board with is fading. It is hard to align 9 grown men on a singular vision, but it appears to largely hinge on one person.

The Wu are known for their unlikely devotees, from Quentin Tarantino to Jon Favreau.  Perhaps the RZA should have a conversation with NBA player Tim Duncan. Duncan is an unquestioned Hall of Famer, but realized to prolong his career he would have to refine his game. He eliminated the stubborn habits that highlighted his old age, allowed teammates he groomed to take more prominent roles, and changed his game to acquiesce to the new NBA. For his concessions, he has helped the Spurs win another championship in a respectable final act.

The Wu Tang Clan is absolutely capable of swarming the game for at least one more moment. The solo work of the group’s most prominent members shows that if they condensed their creativity from 15 songs to 10 verses they would be potent. The huge qualifier is being motivated to do such. RZA once pondered “how can hip hop be dead when Wu-Tang is forever”? Hip hop will surely thrive when Wu-Tang is really back.

 
Andre Geerza, wutang