Review Summary: Raekwon delivers a record that is more Yakuza than mafia, (sonically) less vintage Wu-Tang and more B-list imitation, and less reliant on stream-of-consciousness narratives than on backwards-looking nostalgia. Take that as you will.
Sputnikmusic’s very own Stephen Appel hit the nail right on the head when he noted that, “…much like Ghostface's Apollo Kids
, [Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
] is a modernized Wu-Tang release that reflects on the respective member's older works.” However, the connotation with which he said it was a bit too optimistic. Riding on the coat tails of Ghost’s Apollo Kids
, Rae’s Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
is an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle once more using the same recipe the Wu has thrived on since their classic debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
. But since the last great Wu-Tang record – which I believe was Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II
– a few things have changed. RZA has managed to seemingly estrange himself from the other seven members due to prioritizing his work in the film industry and Raekwon finally eclipsed the dreaded 40 milestone. Regardless, their talent is undeniable and their influence is inarguably vast, as evidenced by the bevy of imitators that have tried their hand, without success, at fashioning themselves in the vein of the supergroup, but even the Wu’s affiliates don’t come close to doing that. This is why this record is, in a weird sort of way, ironic. Although critics and fans have almost unanimously praised it as a great album, in some places even as one of the best Wu-Tang releases, there’s a pervasive hollowness to it and something is definitely missing. This isn’t a glorious revisitation of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
as interpreted by Chef. No; here, we find longtime Wu collaborators impersonating RZA with an aging Raekwon going through the motions. The formula is here, but the execution is not and that amounts to Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
failing to transcend anything more than Wu Massacre
or Apollo Kids
If nothing else, the album serves as a crash course in Wu-Tang mythology. Equal parts Eastern mysticism, Wuxia verbiage, and samurai posturing, the Wu-Tang doctrine is a distinctly swirling combination of oriental culture and archetypal Kung-Fu flick fodder with sinister, Staten Island grit peppered in. The style championed by the founding members on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is on full display here. “Every Soldier in the Hood” sets the standard for the album as Raekwon runs through a checklist of quintessential, clichéd pseudo-Eastern Asian phraseology (i.e. “crouching tiger,” “lotus,” “cobra,” “Shaolin”) throughout the course of his verse before passing the mic off to Meth, who spits some post-“C.R.E.A.M.” nostalgia, “I used to fight for crumbs/Throw an ace, kick the dice and run.” Unlike the Cuban Linx
es, it has no linear plotline and it’s not a Mafioso album either, and the lyricism is more Yakuza than it is mafia. In fact, Raekwon and co. are less reliant on stream-of-consciousness narratives than they are on wistful nostalgia, and the album takes more trips down memory lane than to the 7-11 to buy more baking soda. However, Chef’s penchant for vivid imagery remains. On “Ferry Boat Killaz,” he raps ominously, “infrared lasers on top of the ceilings” and the first few lines (“he threw a kick at me, I backslapped him I pulled out the Mac, he kicked it out of my hand,”) of “Chop Chop Ninja” are reminiscent of Walker, Texas Ranger in a sort of oriental way. Raekwon’s swift flow allows him several opportunities to lyrically flex, and much of the album is comprised of extended rhyme schemes with less syllables per end rhyme and it’s almost a little game trying to keep up.
Raekwon exercises the vintage Wu-Tang canons both lyrically and sonically, but disappointingly, the music aspect almost seems like a cheap rip-off of the style RZA pioneered back in the ‘90s. The lo-fi, gritty minimalism is gone and the beats seem to have little-to-no soul. While the production is both gothic and Eastern it lacks the theatrics of Raekwon’s last release. The theme here is RZA-replication-by-committee (namely, Bronze Nazareth, The Alchemist, Mathematics) and after multiple listens the beats get to be basic and thus, there is little replay value to the album. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Out of Raekwon’s five albums, only two (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II
) are consensus classics while his other three have merely run the gamut from solid to mediocre. RZA executive produced his finest works, but was nowhere to be found on the other three. Now what does that tell you?
In the end, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
is a solid release but breaks no new ground nor expounds upon the greatness of his last album. Worth a few spins, yes; album of the year, no, and to say this is up to par with any of the true Wu-Tang classics, would certainly be a stretch of the imagination. On a related note, RZA, Ghost, and Raekwon need to put the 8 Diagrams
bullsh*t aside, find some artistic ground, and churn out some more classics before it’s too late.