20 years of Wu-Tang Forever
For the 20th anniversary of their second LP, Crack Magazine’s editor Davy Reed considers the context of the Wu-Tang Clan’s ideology
Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever
Original release date: 3 June, 1997
Wu-Tang Forever debuted at the very top of the US Billboard Albums Chart – a spot previously held by the Spice Girls for five weeks – and it would also peak at number one in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. With 27 tracks split across two discs and an absence of radio-tailored material, the Wu-Tang Clan’s second group album remains New York hip-hop’s most confident and indulgent gesture. But 20 years later, its title is cruelly ironic, as Wu-Tang Forever marked the point when the group’s solidarity, and the widespread demand for their poetic style of hardcore rap, began to dissolve.
Wu-Tang Forever was spearheaded by Triumph – a hookless posse cut featuring all nine official members alongside close affiliate Capadonna. The track is a compositional masterpiece, a relay of diverse and charismatic emcees each budging the tonality of the track in a new direction. You could argue that the album’s core values are distilled within a few bars from Masta Killa, who delivers his spoken-word verse with all the seriousness of a religious sermon, advocating the enlightening potential of poetic hip-hop: “light is provided through sparks of energy from the mind that travels in rhyme form/ Giving sight to the blind,” yet, in the case of less discerning listeners, “the dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum.”
Sonically and lyrically, the mood of Wu-Tang Forever is often morose and paranoid. Conventional hedonistic hip-hop tropes are present, but approached with streetwise cynicism – intoxication is a coping mechanism, sex is corrupted with the risk of STDs and according to Method Man, “behind every fortune there’s a crime”.
But at this point, the Wu-Tang Clan’s philosophy – formed with a mixture of kung-fu movie scripts and the teachings of the Five Percent Nation, the Nation of Islam offshoot which was prominent among NYC hip-hop circles during the 90s – was arguably at its most moralistic. Disc One opens with a six minute lecture from Popa Wu, a kind of elder spiritual advisor to the group. While braggadocio is still expressed with aggressive imagery, tracks like A Better Tomorrow identify the socio-economic frameworks that perpetuate poverty, and on Impossible, Ghostface Killah’s heartbreaking verse tells the story of the murder of an old friend, which is met with indifference from “Officer Louch” – a real-life New York policeman who allegedly harassed the Clan and killed one of their associates. Ghost’s verse is followed by an anti-gun message from his rhyming partner Raekwon – remarkable considering the pair had recently indulged in Mafioso fantasies for Raekwon’s seminal ’95 solo album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
The album would have risked being tedious if wasn’t for the fact the rappers were on such good form. The group’s 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is widely regarded as the classic, with its anthemic hooks and the eerie magic of RZA’s early, more lo-fi production. But with the exception of Ol’ Dirty Bastard who only appeared on six tracks (his erratic behaviour, caused by mental health issues and substance abuse, was by this point leading him on a downward spiral which led to his untimely death in 2004) the group’s most popular emcees – namely Method Man, Ghostface and Raekwon – had matured lyrically and stylistically over the course of five years.
Testament to RZA’s confidence in his group at the time, on Wu-Tang Forever he also gave the group’s B team equal exposure. Despite the lesser known members just about keeping up with the others, after Wu-Tang Forever, Masta Killa, U God, Inspectah Deck and Capadonna struggled to keep their solo careers afloat once RZA’s “five year plan” was up and the group began to disperse.
On the intro of Disc Two, RZA and GZA throw shots at rival rappers, attacking artists “trying to take hip-hop and make that shit RnB” and claiming that Wu-Tang Forever is “hip-hop in its purest form.” But ironically, most of the Wu-Tang Clan’s hits after this LP featured catchy, radio-friendly hooks – their patchy 1999 LP The W was propped up by Gravel Pit, ODB scored a hit with Baby I Got Your Money thanks to a quotable Kelis hook, while U God and Ghostface enjoyed another taste of chart success with the club-friendly single Cherchez La Ghost.
When chart-busting singer-rapper Drake paid tribute with his single Wu-Tang Forever in 2013, by this point the group were grateful for the cosign and eager to record their own version. “I guess we kind of came too hard for him,” came U God’s excuse when the remix never saw the light of day.
If we look at the most relevant new hip-hop artists of 2017 – fashionable rappers like Lil Yachty, Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert – in comparison to the Wu-Tang Clan in 1997, the contrast in values, style and form couldn’t be more striking. Yachty’s music often conveys carefree adolescent joy; Carti dismisses dextrous rapping almost entirely, depending heavily on ad-libs; and Uzi has admitted, “Instagram did just as much for me as SoundCloud”. Their art seems to be an emotional escape from the pain of America’s struggles, rather than a direct articulation of them.
It’s strange to expect these young artists, who are separated from the Wu-Tang Clan by generations and geography, to weave Wu-Tang’s influence into the DNA of their style. (After all, the Wu-Tang Clan’s hardcore street sound and poetic pride was a radical departure from the from The Bronx’s DJ-focused hip-hop block parties of the 1980s.) And yet, new styles of hip-hop are still measured against the criteria of quality established with records like Wu-Tang Forever. Maybe it was just so good that the world never got over it.