As blasphemous as it may be, “The W”, might be my favorite Wu-Tang Clan album, not counting their solo releases.
It’s a shame that the album doesn’t really get a fair shake from most people off the rip. I attribute this to the fact that the album’s most hyped single, “Gravel Pit”, is a really poor representation of the album as a whole: a rather unsuccessful attempt at trying to make something that was outright-commercial at the time.
For those who don’t remember, (or weren’t alive) early 2000s hip-hop radio was a very strange place. Early 2000s radio was actually just a strange place in general, as folks like Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, Eminem, and NSYNC had to duke it out for airplay.
Unfortunately, this was the end of an era for rappers who could actually R-A-P. When “The W” was released, Puff Daddy was the man, the south was ascendant, and we were but a few years away from 50 Cent.
That puts a group like The Wu in a precarious position. They never really made lowest-common-denominator bullshit, and songs like, “Gravel Pit”, and, “Do You Really (Thang Thang)”, are rather ill-considered attempts at trying to cash in on what they (or the label) thought would sell.
Fortunately for us, we’re talking about just two songs off of a 13-song album, and the rest of what they have to offer is exceptional.
The album kicks off with a knock-down one-two punch, “Chamber Music”, and, “Careful.”
The first section of “Chamber Music” is an intro, and the song finds the Clan fully in their wheelhouse. We have obligatory kung-fu samples, and three especially lively, dexterous verses from Raekwon, GZA, and Method Man.
The song that follows, “Careful”, may well be the group’s crowning achievement for my money.
It’s a terrifying piece of music, one that owes much to the horrorcore of RZA’s Gravediggaz group (with Prince Paul), and maybe a little bit of “Mystic Stylez”-era Three 6 Mafia.
Capadonna, Ghostface, and Inspectah Deck turn in career-best work here, with Ghostface’s verse in particular radiating sheer brilliance.
For context, Ghostface released his second album, “Supreme Clientele”, around the same time as “The W.” Most people argue that this was him at his peek, and that album is certainly a masterclass in narrative storytelling, abstract wordplay, writer’s craft, and delivery.
Here, he is still very much in that mode. His verse is mercilessly short, but he manages to string together an OUTRAGEOUS lyrical tapestry, name-dropping Osh-Kosh children’s clothing, Houdini, Pink Champelle, and a box-cutter.
Sonically, the song is RZA collage, hodge-podge par excellence. It’s like the love child of PS1-era Resident Evil sound effects, and severely stripped down version of the soundtrack to, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.”
It’s choppy, it’s paranoid, it’s gutter, and IT’S LO-FI AS FUCK.
It’s followed by, “Hollow Bones”, which sees Cuban Linx compatriots Raekwon and Ghostface joined by Inspectah Deck for tales of violence delivered at mid-tempo, over a lackadaisical, phasing soul sample.
The song is incredible in the fact that it allows the three Clan members to essentially flex much like a saxophone player or guitarist would, soloing over an instrumental break. Rhythmically, each member’s delivery is flawless, and they nail their performances.
The two songs that follow see RZA stepping out of box a bit with regards to production, and in the case of “One Blood Under W”, with regards to collaborators too.
“Redbull” is exciting, as it’s the debut of Redman on a Wu-Tang album. He and Method Man made, “Blackout”, the previous year, and they’re up to bat first, still in fine form, off the year’s previous collaboration. While Redman certainly delivered better verses at this point in his career, he comes with good energy, and both Method Man and Inspectah Deck follow suit.
The album has a number of collaborators pop up, and the highlights probably involve the contributions of both Nas, and Busta Rhymes.
Nas shows up first on, “Let My N______ Live.” He delivers a magnificent verse, perhaps trying to one-up his already legendary verse on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’s, “Verbal Intercourse”, with Raekwon and Ghostface. Here, he’s joined by Raekwon and Inspectah Deck who both bring their A-game too.
RZA’s production on this track is especially impressive. It’s anxiety-inducing here, with a simmering string sample underneath the drums, and intermittent trombone (?) “womps” that would make Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer blush.
The beat is unique, as it never really GOES anywhere, but it’s more magnificent because of it. It gives the song an edge, and a sense of panic. It’s nerve-wracking and exhilarating: wonderful.
Busta Rhymes’ performance on, “The Monument”, is no less impressive.
While his own music had been creeping more and more towards commercialism with each album release after his first, Busta has no such aspirations or inclination here. He makes it very clear that he is not one to suffer fools— “fuck with street geniuses and bow-legged chicks who walk with a gap.”
His verse is aggressive and menacing, the perfect counterpoint the more laid-back verse from GZA, who closes the song out, and Raekwon who finds himself in the middle, both literally and figuratively.
The remaining songs on the album all have their virtues, and are well-worth listening to. Through and through, this is an incredibly strong album, and I can’t recommend it enough. The songs here that got discussed at length all rank amongst the group’s best work, shining example of both lyricism and ingenuity in production.
If you’re a casual Wu fan, and you’ve never made the dive with this, please do so now.
If you’re a seasoned vet, give this another spin, and recall its brilliance.
In either case, you won’t be disappointed.