Review Summary: An overlooked double Album, that proves more depth to group than before.
Double albums by Hip-Hop artists are generally a disappointing affair. Talented MCs stuff two discs worth of material, with crappy 10 second guest spots, filler, and pointless skits, often burying away the real gems. Outkast has done a pretty good job at putting out double/long albums that can be considered gems. But artists like 2pac, Nas, and even the great Schooly D released lengthy, over indulgent albums that could probably not be stomached in one listen. In fact the only double hip hop album that totally exceeded my expectations, is the Wu-Tang clan's Wu-Tang Forever.
Arising from the smoke of their East-coast Hip Hop classic, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), with a soul-based, poetic double disc album might seem like a risky stretch. But in the three years between their debut was a string of classic solo albums such as Raekwon's Mafioso classic, "Only Built for Cuban Linx", Ghostface Killah's "Ironman", the GZA's masterful "Liquid Swords", and Ol' Dirty Bastard's best work, "Return to the 36 Chambers". These records were scattered with evidence of what the band would achieve on this album.
The first thing to notice, is the different direction in the lyrics. Almost every MC had grown considerably since Enter the Wu-Tang, and has expanded upon their sound, and the maturity is shown extensively throughout the two discs. The lyrics are confident, and show a much more poetic side to the group than seen previously. Each MC opens up their vocabulary, using metaphors, but still embracing street slang. The first verse of "Reunited" shows the mighty GZA rapping "Struck a match to the underground/industry ignited/from metaphorical parables to fertilize the Earth/Wicked niggaz come, try to burglarize the turf/Scattin off soft-ass beats them niggaz rap happily" confidently, but with a free feel as if the words simply fell out of his mouth. The Inspectah Deck continues with his technical rhymes, despite embracing their new found style. Metaphors jump in, when he raps "I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies and hypothesis can't define how I be droppin these mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery Flee with the lottery possibly they spotted me/Battle-scarred shogunexplosion when my pen hits tremendousultra-violet shine blind forensics" on the posse cut, "Triumph". Ghostface Killah and Raekwon continue to keep high energy, and intense rhymes while adapting, and they sync in perfectly with their new lyrics. Speaking of vocal stylings, maturity is seen extensively with in the collective. Musical mastermind, the RZA abandoned his hardcore style of rapping, and replaced it with a equally passionate, but calmer style that is seen best on the near perfect "Severe Punishment" ("Fabulous establishment metabolism/Blackfoot Indian Cherokee started out smaller than amphibian/Then grew to a physical body with five meridians"). The Method Man's deep voice has less off beat rhythm and more focuss, especially when he raps on the aforementioned Triumph "As the world turns, I spread like germsBless the globe with the pestilence, the hard-headed never learn/It's my testament to those burned/Play my position in the game of life/standin firm"
One of the biggest additions to the group is the inclusion of the previously rarely seen MCs, U-God, and Masta Killah, as well as including Cappadona on five tracks. U-God's deep flow style was only used twice on their previous record, but his voice suites these lyrics perfectly and his flow is pronounced clearly with rhymes like "Alphabet run/construction voice might blow/Tap dance swelling Hemingway novel model/For a breather dirty reefer hide your bottle". Masta Killah owes much debt to the GZA, and his cool, laid back, yet still rather technical style, is highly remiscent of the GZA' style on tracks like the "Deadly Melody" where he raps "Mother***ers halt, when my Colt/start stompin/Thunder, strikes your land with a jolt/Your stamina level is lowlike currents from the volts of relentless punishment/that multiplies". Cappadona is actually one of my favorite MCs of the Wu-Tang, and on "Little Ghetto Boys", he takes one of the stand-out lines "When we not workin we hardly be around/Yeah see the light, right now we could fight/You not a real brother you just a fake type/that get on the mic then, throw your cliche/Half the East coast soundin just like Rae/If you a Gambino, give credit to the flow/If you not a part of this kid act like you know". It should be noted that since Cappadona was simply a guest on the record, his style is not as remiscent of the other MCs, but more prophetic and journalistic.
Production wise, the RZA totally grew from the gritty, simple beats that made up 36 Chambers, and emphasizes on a whole new instrumentation and clear, clean and fully intricate prodction. The occasional piano playing that was used on 36 Chambers was bumped up and is used frequently, often drowining away the distant drum beats. Not only that, but Viola, and a entire assortment of string samples are frequently used, and unlike many uses of strings in Hip-Hop, they actually can be heard with soul. The ending of Reunited is seen with a mess of strings clashed together in a soulful double solo. With this, the samples sound easily like real instruments and create an all around organic feel, which is only helped by the aforementioned clean production and smooth keyboards. Tracks like "For Heaven's Sake" create a very cinematic style with the keyboards and samples working together, creating a sound reminiscent of songs on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and is only pushed further with the clean slate of production and boom box beat. To further a soulesque vibe, back-up singers like Tekitha and Roxxane belt out some exceptional vocals, though they are not as prominent as they could be on the two discs, which is somewhat disappointing. The whole sound works effectively on almost every track. However, not all tracks embrace it. Ol' Dirty Bastard's solo track, "Dog ***" has a old school styled production to it, but not in the dark way, that was Enter the Wu-Tang.
The biggest disappointment of Wu-Tang Forever, however, is the lack of the erratic Ol' Dirty Bastard. Because of frequent Jail time, his contributions were less frequent. And while he preforms one of the only four solo tracks, his sing song style is highly absent from the two disc set. His gritty, yet fun verse is only featured on three tracks, and a few spoken word intros. The clean production adds a bit more light to the record, but the album does not seem nearly as fun without Ol' Dirty.
As a whole Wu-Tang Forever embraces production matters with much cleaner instrumentals and all around engineering. The mechanics of the record, however, are still lead by the lyricsm, and almost all nine MCs contribute and grow throughout the record confidently. Surprisingly, the record hasn’t met up with the popularity that Enter the Wu-Tang has; the rugged atmosphere that is Enter the Wu-tang, overcomes this cleanly recorded effort.