Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang by Raekwon
After releasing in 1995 what is widely regarded as the finest of the Wu-Tang solo efforts, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Raekwon (a.k.a. Raekwon the Chef) spent most of the nineties and all of the 2000s in relative obscurity, releasing only two largely overlooked albums: Immobilarity in 1999, and The Lex Diamond Story in 2003. Six years later, he returned to critical favor with the sequel to his seminal debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, which was, like its predecessor, lent ample support by his Wu-Tang brethren appearing as their "Wu Gambinos" alter egos. Owing to creative differences between RZA and several members of the Wu-Tang Clan over the "commercial"-sounding 8 Diagrams album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang was originally planned as its long-awaited follow up: a Wu-Tang "group album," the first in four years, but sans production or any creative contribution from RZA. I guess most of the Wu wasn't available so the result is a Raekwon solo album with awful cover art.
Due to this painful loss of the group's de-facto leader, the true architect of their signature sound, Raekwon has sought out a number of RZA-esque producers to do his bidding: the brief but deeply engaging Scram Jones-produced title track luxuriates in Kung-Fu movie samples and orchestral Horror strings and features a disquieting verse by a demonically possessed, hoarse sounding Raekwon, for the first verse making unnerving use of a staid dimeter; another less successful RZA-esque production can be found on the brief O.D.B.-sampling third track, "Silver Rings," and the album's third to last, "The Scroll" (which may be more Havoc than RZA, but I can't be sure.)
One of the downsides of RZA's noninvolvement is that many of the cooks granted access to the Chef's kitchen might not even be graduates of the RZA School of Beatmaking and may very well spoil the broth: "Every Soldier in the Hood" features a dinky beat further eroded by the use of poppy vocal double-tracking for its chorus; "Chop Chop Ninja" features a tone deaf R&B hook sung by Estelle, its instrumentation, a (probably unintentionally) faintly audible synth-string loop.
"Butter Knives" and "Molasses" can be described as less successful attempts, on the part of producers Bronze Nazareth and Xtreme (really?) respectively, to approximate a RZA-esque formula: both verge on parody, effusing only a fraction of the menace of the opening track. But then there is the brilliant "Snake Pond," which makes excellent use of heavily processed, backmasked vocal samples and what sounds like a zither. The cool, contemplative "Crane Style" is little more than an interlude that gives way to the nearly six-minute headache "Rock N Roll," a jumble of auto-tuned vocals and snare drums that sound vaguely like gun shots reverberating in canyons.
"Rich and Black" makes clever use of orchestral clash cymbals, but tends towards boredom with its half-bar of a string sample and resigned groan of a verse from a Nas audibly laying in a deep coma upon his laurels. The cutesy, Peter Gunn-ish "Last Trip to Scotland" is a mid-point on an album of low-points: I wasn't going to mention that Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang's running time is fairly short for a 17-track album, but the brevity of these tracks is one of their strongest suits; the most egregious offenders are mercifully brief, and very few are as traumatic as "Rock N Roll."
The Alchemist's decision to sculpt "Ferry Boat Killaz" out of pitched-up samples was dubious as it makes for a tinny, unlistenable rap-muzak hybrid; similarly, "Dart School" finds longtime Wu-Tang DJ Mathematics struggling in vain to integrate into his composition swelling "movie soundtrack" strings, noodling harps and a too-loud vocal track; "Masters of Our Fate" is another in a long line of ludicrous, syrupy "triumphant hero" beats.
"From the Hills" features Raheem DaVaughn singing about the "prophecy of the Wu-Tang" in a spot-on Curtis Mayfield impression, and Method Man quoting his famous opening verse from the Wu-Tang Forever classic "Reunited," both of which can be seen in this context as mildly disrespectful. A very disappointing album in many ways serving as a document of a real life tragedy: Raekwon needs RZA a lot more than RZA needs Raekwon; hopefully they'll patch things up.
Get the most-revealing celebrity conversations with the uInterview podcast!