The stupidest, greatest, lovingest, most problematic-yet-simple moment in pop last year was a guy not content to be called Ol’ Dirty Bastard letting it all hang out. “Big Baby Jesus I can’t wait/Nigga fuck that I can’t wait,” he bugle-slurred over a sped-up disco beat. “You fucking nutcase,” a woman cooed, or maybe he was just playing the fool. Either way, he was all the joy in the universe condensed into the sweat on a crazy black fool’s face. Later on N***a Please, ODB covered Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache,” also pretty wonderful, though he’s now in danger of covering Lady Day’s life. The charges are pitiful: threatening a security guard, drug possession, driving with a suspended license, stealing sneakers, even wearing a bulletproof vest. But having been booted from a rehab center for getting drunk after the death of two relatives, he faces years in stir. We look back and wonder at a justice system indifferent to the artistry of Holiday. What about Ol’ Dirty, recently observed picking his nose then asking a prosecutor if he could be her sperm donor? Imagine trying to justify his self-expression in court.
I’ll stick to a smaller question: what the acclaim for N***a Please, in all its smeared glory, bodes for the struggling Wu-Tang Clan. With genius producer RZA, eight distinctive rappers, and dreams of expansion into areas like fashion and film, Wu-Tang was a category killer: street material raised to an Afrocentric art-rock summit, the corporate stock split at every turn through solo projects on different labels and Wu-Fam partnerships. The crowning idea, part of the romance of the gangsta-grunge early ’90s, was that RZA could actually increase Wu-Tang’s popularity by making his music more difficult to understand. He’d seed his cult and insulate his brand from co-optation with unfathomable wizardry.
Rugged-voiced Method Man, the group’s closest thing to a matinee idol, and ODB, its resident freak, got the first two solo bids. But RZA’s apotheosis came on subsequent albums credited to Genius/GZA, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah, less bewitching but speedier slang-bangers. Rappers traded verses like jazz solos, their narratives and references deliberately fractured, with RZA’s warped tracks approaching beats like Dalí approached landscape. There was candy, too: I don’t know what “let’s connect politics/Ditto” means in Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” but it’s a hell of a hook.
Wu’s downfall is blamed on RZA overextending himself, subcontracting to weaker producers and failing to deliver clinching tracks for the second Wu-Tang Clan album. But all the pieces were coming out of the puzzle. Street labels like No Limit and Cash Money made RZA’s segmented business model seem shaky and cut into the “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit” market. Underground hip-hop claimed the heads. Charismatic new rappers revealed the drawbacks of an ensemble Greg Tate cannily compares to Ellington’s and P-Funk: there are never enough Ben Websters and Bootsy Collinses to go around. Plus, late-’90s pop didn’t welcome confusion: the most recent track on 1999’s The RZA Hits dates to 1996.
The Wu responded with typical overkill, planning for all the solo acts to release an album last year, and they came damn close, though four months in jail on an old robbery charge held Ghostface Killah back until last week, RZA’s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog awaits the film, and Masta Killa is still MIA. The results are all over the place: Genius’s and Raekwon’s follow-ups shockingly dismissible, occasional ace moments on Inspectah Deck’s and especially U-God’s debuts, ODB’s cult status assured, and the Method Man/Redman collaboration Blackout! (Def Jam) a rarity, the self-satisfied album that’s actually fun to listen to. Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele (Epic/Razor Sharp) tips the scale: slamming from start to finish, poised enough to rival anything on Rawkus or Def Jam, it’s already being hailed as the first great Wu-Tang album in years.
Partly, that’s because N***a Please isn’t much of a Wu album at all, with no Clan cameos and nearly every hammerhead hook produced by either the Neptunes—a Virginia duo who pioneered an r&b/Wu synthesis on Noreaga’s “SuperThug”—or the Def Jam-schooled Irv Gotti. RZA can simplify to fit the times, as he proves on his two Blackout! tracks, especially “Cereal Killers,” and his harmonics are still exceptional compared to Erick Sermon’s form-fitting beats. But he’s not essential to these albums because their main agenda is happiness, not an emotion he’s ever been good at. Method Man guests on most of the second-rate Wu albums, usually rapping a chorus instead of a verse. He and ODB transcended RZA because you don’t have to bear down mentally to love what they’re doing.
The rest aren’t so independent. Like Genius/GZA, Inspectah Deck is an all-purpose rapper who rarely stands out; Uncontrolled Substance (Loud) finds RZA getting jiggy on “Movas & Shakers,” maintains a pulse because Deck has become a solid producer himself, and does sex-as-style OK-well, and rivals Clockers for lyrics about hustlers fighting stress. Not quite. U-God, like Masta Killa, has a slow flat timbre that’s better for guest slots than long stints, but on Golden Arms Redemption (Wu-Tang) his bleakness can be extraordinary: “Stay in Your Lane” (with Eliza Doolittle interpolation), “Hungry,” “Pleasure or Pain,” and “Night the City Cried,” a minifilm as narratively complete as any in the Wu/Woo book. Raekwon was supposed to be the other standout Wu Gambino, their fastest gun, yet deprived of RZA and his Cuban Linx partner Ghostface on Immobilarity (Loud), he’s barely the same rapper. It’s a terminal case of Charlie Parker with strings.
So it falls on Ghostface Killah to prove the Wu-Tang Clan can still bring the ruckus. Compare Supreme Clientele‘s “Stay True” with its source track, Inspectah Deck’s “Elevations.” Deck’s version is mournful, passive; Ghost’s rap pulls against the music, double-timing and contesting it as his lyrics turn around. He’s got a point guard’s voice, like Avery Johnson’s overarticulated high-pitched declamations, and a point guard’s gift for pumping everyone around him—even Method Man sweated his verse. A reanimated RZA and various henchmen hook Ghostface up with cinematic themes, as rooted in disco as funk (including a Dr. Buzzard remake and a lift from Pharoahe Monch’s “Mayor”), that turn his thin natural instrument into the voice of a front-runner. Ghost does the rest. He can speed-slang to rival Raekwon, but his frame of reference is broader and he spits percussively, as welcome to rock to as to decipher.
With the first half and beyond all sounding like an identical comeback single, before Ghostface finally relaxes and shows his conceptual range, this album’s posturing is less palatable and outsider-friendly than ODB. But like N***a Please and even Blackout!, it’s an argument that what Wu-Tang have been hurting for isn’t more RZA genius or lyrical puzzles so much as a regrounding in the basics: above all, energy and emotional directness. Hip-hop has hit a plateau where success needn’t be ephemeral anymore; if Premier and Dre can still lace tracks, so can RZA. And he’s got the talent, including a Raekwon in need of ryzarection. Fuck that I can’t wait.