Review Summary: the wave burst, split the megahertz
As it turns out, all that was needed for the Wu-Tang Clan to make a comeback was to not make a Wu-Tang Clan album. The Saga Continues
, like previous 'Wu-Tang-but-not-Clan' records Chamber Music
and Legendary Weapons
, sidesteps those lofty expectations via a slight rebranding, as technically a compilation of songs featuring Wu members. Freed from that hefty baggage, and with RZA behind the mic rather than the mixing board, The Saga Continues
sees the group at their most uninhibited in years.
It seems appropriate that the guy who originally designed the W symbol is behind the desk for their most convincing throwback; Mathematics weaves grimy bass and drums around lilting piano and string cues like an accomplished student of the RZA style. After years of albums dictated by RZA following his own muses down various foxholes, Mathematics prioritises the good of the group and takes a backseat in the best way. There's nothing insincere about his love for those early classics, either: Method Man's rubbery bars bounce over the top of "If Time Is Money" like a lost cut from Tical
, "Pearl Harbor" boasts a massive Ghostface hook over glittery slo-mo glory a la Supreme Clientele
, and "People Say" employs a soul vocal sample in deference to Wu-Tang Forever
. Martial arts movie samples dominate, even taking over the entirety of "Famous Fighters" – this is Mathematics' love letter to the 90s Wu-Tang, after all, and the man knows as well as anyone those cheesy samples should be a lead character alongside any of the original nine rappers. Uniformly, these beats are fantastic, paying respect to RZA's many styles without aping them or cynically looking for the next big hit.
Mathematics' role as producer leaves us with the somewhat unique situation of RZA being free to just rap, with Saga
allowing him more verses than any album since Wu-Tang Forever
. His gravelly growl is all over the album, including a three-part solo song – all named "The Saga Continues", get it" – which spans the tracklist to provide a note of consistency. Yes, he still spits in blatant refusal of the rules of tempo, cramming together a flurry of important-sounding words like "should we just leave our homes like the prophet Muhammad left Mecca for Medina"", but his palpable passion and worldly wisdom more than make up for the occasional "we cross more streets than Frogger" bar. RZA is our guide throughout, opening and closing the album and providing a steady hand on the group cuts, but it's Method Man who quickly takes the lead with barely a glance backwards. Meth has not lost a single step since his prime, and his performance here sees bars and flow as good as they've ever been, the perfect hybrid of 36 Chambers'
sing-songy crooner and the rugged, monotone spitter of Tical
and "Shadowboxin'". Every highlight here has Meth front and centre, between the superb wall-to-wall bars of "If Time Is Money", the keys-heavy bop "Frozen", or the (fingers crossed) Blackout! 3
prelude "Hood Go Bang!".
Ultimately, what keeps The Saga Continues
from its full potential is a confusing desire to be both sage, wizened adviser and fun banger-loving uncle. "Family" and "Message" skits clumsily insert motivational speeches on family life, racism and inter-generational relationships where they don't belong; undeniably important subjects handled so lazily they're screaming to be skipped. It's a shame, because the late-album cuts allow the rappers to explore some fascinating shades on their own without the heavy-handed messages: RZA's "look me in my eyes and lie to me again/tell me I'm your only lover, your only friend" on "My Only One" is powerful enough to overcome the cheesiest of R&B choruses and
a terrible Cappadonna verse (also known as just a Cappadonna verse), while Ghostface's only verse sees him forego his usual violent antics for a flirty tale. Okay, maybe this would never have passed the litmus test as a full Wu-Tang Clan release: GZA appears for about 20 seconds (closing out a track with a metaphorical verse about writing a verse, surprising no-one); Deck and Raekwon drop in for two quick and dirty verses as good as they are short; and not a single song is stamped with RZA's increasingly messy production watermark. But if the price of making a full Clan album these days is stuffing it full of Masta Killa and Cappadonna verses until it reaches 80 minutes, well, we're better off with the lean 50 of The Saga Continues
. It's regrettable, but also fitting, because freed from the obligations a full album would have entailed, Wu-Tang are free to make their best music in over ten years.