Review Summary: Iron Flag shows Wu-Tang grew up in eight years, but not into the men you'd probably hope they did.
It's often annoyingly accepted that the Wu-Tang Clan simply arrived on the hip hop scene, released an instant classic, and imploded in a shower of incredibly successful clothing ranges and individual albums and projects. This is obviously a very close minded standpoint, but it's not an entirely untrue one. True, it is hard to imagine a hip hop group emerging now and unleashing such an influential, brilliant and ultimately timeless album as 36-Chambers, and true, it did somewhat fracture the band, inflating their egos to such an extent and encouraging them to split and release their own solo albums, but there is more to it than that.
So it is thought that the Wu then released very little of value as a collective, and again this is true. The first and second wave of the band's solo albums were all excellent, showcasing the huge and at times unbelievable array of talent RZA had assembled seemingly by chance under the flag of the Wu. However, to immediately write off the group's collective output after 36 Chambers is not so worthwhile. Everyone knows they exploded into fame and fortune after it, but that doesn't mean they compromised their excellent MCing, production, or even sense of humour and unity.
The group's second album, Wu-Tang Forever followed. It was an obvious mainstream smash, and an obvious let down to fans who'd waited four years for it. And so all that arduous history takes us to the Wu's fourth album, Iron Flag. And what is quite honestly the best record the Wu released as a collective since their groundbreaking, genre destroying debut eight years previous.
Essentially, the album is RZA's to play with. He kicks about with a lot of deeper funk grooves on here than before, but manages to ground it and contrast it with the oddly out of key horns and snare heavy beats of yesteryear. Though he may never reach the production heights of 36-Chambers ever again, RZA does his best to give as good a grounding for the incredible MC'ing of each member (of whom Ol' Dirty Bastard is now completely absent, due to numerous legal troubles and court cases), which allows them to lay down their often mesmerizing, tongue twisting lyrical wordplay.
Some tracks really fall by the side though, tracks like Chrome Wheels come off as unnecessarily show-offish, and not in a good way, with a female vocalist imploring the Wu 'Bang us in ya cars, bang us in ya jeeps'. It's at times extremely uncharacteristic and as such so unenjoyable when the Wu attempt to stretch out into bragging and bang banging territory, as opposed to the quiet, cool blunt-smokin' musings of yore. There is that though, as Method (the real star of the album) gives a great performance in Y'all Be Warned, and with an amusing but sincere Outkast-copycat track Dashing Regions, it is good to see the Wu absorbing the sound and style of groups they themselves influenced.
The crowning glory though, is Uzi (Pinky Ring), a track which stands so far ahead of everything else on the album and whose production even harks back to 1993. What's really strange though is that the band never seems to want to touch on this style again, despite it being the exact thing Wu-Tang fans come to expect and in all honesty deserve from the group, and something we know the Clan to be more than capable of.
It is a mixed album, one that at times seems to wave it's wad of cash too
close to your nose, but it's no less enjoyable for it. Times had changed in eight years, the Wu had grown up and grown rich, but that doesn't excuse their often annoying behaviour and actions which seem to go directly in the face of their old style, that of laid back flows, groovy, mind bending beats and a sense of unity, togetherness and humour that doesn't seem to be as obviously present on Iron Flag as in previous releases. Having said that, it sure as hell beats the guest-heavy 'The W', and the bloated 36 Chambers followup 'Wu-Tang Forever', being on point and more to
the point more times than those albums combined.