Wu-Tang Forever: The Making And The Breaking Of The Clan

Angus Batey looks back 20 years to the album that came at the end of the Wu-Tang Clan's five year plan and asks, What went wrong?

There are a number of undeniably impressive facts to weigh about the second Wu-Tang Clan LP. The first hip-hop album to go straight to the top of the mainstream album charts in both the United States and the UK after its first week on sale, the sprawling, ambitious double CD was conceived on a truly epic scale, and the widespread euphoria its release and immediate success provoked meant the record appeared to have lived up to even some of the more stratospheric expectations that existed for it. It was the culmination of the brilliant five-year plan conceived by the group’s de facto leader The Rza, which not only turned the Clan into one of the biggest and most important groups in hip hop history but changed the way the music industry worked. From any of these perspectives, the album was a significant achievement.

Yet Wu-Tang Forever is not, in the final analysis, a particularly great record. Despite the initial sense of awe provoked by its sheer scale – 26 tracks, two hours, 90-plus verses from the nine full-time Clan members and increasingly integrated associate, Cappadonna – over time, fans began to realise that less could quite easily have been more. A parlour game developed around what track listing fans would have used to create a killer single-disc album out of the bloated whole: at times, this correspondent has felt that the record might have to be condensed down to the size of an EP before it could be free of filler (though at other times one has acknowledged that assessment is unfairly harsh). It wasn’t as if the group themselves hadn’t understood the risks they were running – Gza’s first lines on ‘As High As Wu-Tang Get’ outline the problem, and propose a sage solution, even though he wasn’t writing about the Clan but at unspecified inferior rivals: "Too many songs, weak rhymes that’s mad long," he raps; "Make it brief, son – half short and twice strong."

In truth, the album’s problems are not to be found in the lyrics: for the most part these live up to the hopes many fans had before release. Forever offers as rich and dense a set of raps as anyone could have wished for, though the thematic consistency that had given previous records (particularly Gza’s Liquid Swords and the Clan’s debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)) such a sharp edge is sorely missed. Nor, ultimately, is it the change of musical direction Rza’s production – and that of True Master, 4th Disciple and, for one track, Inspectah Deck – signalled, though for the most part the new-found sonic cleanliness and the crisp aural patina fails to engage as completely as the first group and solo albums’ dust-encrusted aesthetic. Rather, what we can – particularly with 20 years’ distance – see as the single factor that best explains the record’s limitations relates to the changing circumstances within and around the group.

Wu-Tang Forever was the Clan’s coronation, but it also showed that no sooner had the ceremony begun than that crown had started to slip. Interpersonal relationships were beginning to sunder; Rza’s leadership, once iron-fisted and single-minded, was weakening as the individual members’ stars began to rise. Money, and particularly its distribution among group members, had begun to become an issue. Wu-Tang Forever marked both the height of the Clan’s indomitability, and the point where one of the greatest rap groups of all time began to implode. No wonder it’s a discomfiting listen.

There are highs, of course – just not as many as one perhaps has a right to hope for given the investment of time the record demands. Perhaps the quintessential hip hop curate’s egg, the parts of Forever that repay your attention are often difficult to savour because of the impossibility of disentangling them from the rest of the record. The handful of truly great tracks are easy enough to find – it’s the strong verses you don’t always appreciate. In general, everything Gza contributes is golden, and – as is so often the case – Method Man is great throughout too: a consummate songsmith, he’s a rapper who clearly understands the importance of balancing a commanding, distinctive style with original, witty wordplay, but ensuring that both are working in service of the finished art, not battling against it.

The best thing here, by a fair distance, is the track that was – astonishingly and brilliantly – chosen to be the first single: it’s the only song that had a video made for it, but its nine dense verses and lack of a chorus demonstrate an ongoing and commendable resistance to the idea of commercial compromise. ‘Triumph’ captures the Clan as they reached the summit, and it was clearly vital that they were seen to have scaled the peak on their own terms. This was their moment. Not even Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s absence from the track (he’s the only one of the 10 emcees not to contribute a proper verse, his interjections limited to between-verse ad-libs that fight to be heard in the video over the actors playing TV news anchors) stops it from being one of the group’s greatest.

In no small part its success derives from it being one of the few songs on the album where every emcee does more than just pay lip service to the theme. The other side of that coin, of course, is that "we’re the best rap group of all time and we’re going to enjoy being on top" isn’t subject matter that anyone involved would have found particularly taxing to write about. But if hip hop has ever appealed to you, you’re not going to care too much about how challenging the concept is when the work that results is as excitable and as entertaining. Even the weaker verses work, and the best of them – particularly Deck’s career-defining opening salvo – rank among each rapper’s finest.

Another one that finds the members rapping on it going after their subject matter like a hungry stoat chasing a vole down a burrow is ‘A Better Tomorrow’ – a high point acknowledged at the end of 2014, when it supplied the title for the sixth Wu-Tang LP. The song is among the Clan’s most vivid and emotive pieces of reportage, with each verse matching the writers’ eye for detail with passages of blunt and often lacerating self-analysis. Master Killa’s distinct but sometimes stentorian style works brilliantly here, even though elsewhere on the LP his contributions don’t always seem to gel. Lines with internal rhymes arrive wrapped inside stretches of blank verse, the combination evoking the sense of an elemental struggle to get the truth out amid the battering of gale-force ignorance.

‘A Better Tomorrow’ shares with ‘It’s Yourz’, that follows it at the end of the first disc, a real clunker of a chorus, but as well as fine, focused verses it boasts one of the Clan’s most inspired bits of crate-digging. How and where 4th Disciple turned up a copy of Brooklyn pianist Peter Nero’s 1971 album Love Story isn’t clear, but the fact that he was able to craft one of the group’s most memorable productions from its version of the Romeo & Juliet love theme ‘A Time for Us’ – wistful and melancholic yet steely, filled with ticking tensions and roiling regrets – is quite some achievement. It’s one of those instances where it’s not just the producer’s good fortune to stumble upon a forgotten loop that seals the deal, it’s their ability to hear new music inside fragments of the old that astounds. Yet this points us toward another one of the major problems with Forever as a whole: the record is at its best when it sounds like the Wu-Tang records that came before it, yet with a few notable exceptions, that’s not what you get.

Perhaps the most Wu-sounding thing on Forever is ‘The M.G.M.’, in which the heavyweight combination of Raekwon and Ghostface tell a tag-team tale of gang shenanigans going on around the edges of a championship bout in Las Vegas. Every ingredient of a classic Clan banger is present and correct, from the distant wheeze of strings evoking spaghetti westerns and martial-arts films, through sound effects redolent of pugilist arts and physical violence and a disembodied and truncated snatch of wordless singing to the deliberately dissonant precision of a clatter of sampled drums. Little wonder Rae and Ghost attack the track with undisguised glee, their spittle-flecked delivery and quickfire verbal sparring locating hidden rhythmic patterns inside the all-too-brief track’s sonic bedrock. It’s the two-and-a-half minutes of Wu-Tang Forever that bears the strongest resemblance to Enter The Wu-Tang, yet it was produced by True Disciple, not Rza.

Rza’s production on Forever was widely hailed at the time the record came out, and doesn’t seem to have been questioned by anyone in the band back then either. Yet it made a decisive break with the methods he’d used in the past, its extensive use of live instruments and the avoidance of anything that obviously made a sample sound like a sample setting it very deliberately apart not just from the first group LP but from the five solo albums (and even the Gravediggaz LP) that had followed it. It’s never been entirely clear why this change came about, or why he chose to implement it for so pivotal a release as this rather than test it out as an approach on one of the solo or affiliate releases that were in the works at the time. For his part, he saw the new style as a natural progression, arguing the sound represented the influence of Isaac Hayes and Willie Mitchell, where perhaps before Forever their records would have been ingredients rather than signposts.

It’s tempting to imagine the cleaning-up of the sound as, at least in part, a response to the protracted and vexing creation of the record, in particular the decision to relocate the Clan to Los Angeles to finish the much-delayed album (an alien concept in today’s music business, where the first time most fans hear that a favourite artist is working on a new LP is when it gets released online). The idea was that they’d be able to concentrate once they were all a lengthy flight from the distractions and temptations of both New York and their Wu Mansion clubhouse in New Jersey: 16 of the 26 tracks were either partially recorded or mixed on the other side of America, though only eight songs were made entirely in LA. Knowing that in later years Rza began scoring films perhaps encourages us to hear Hollywood in his production, an impression deepened by the movie-poster style typography of the credits on the back cover. And LA is where Dr Dre and G-Funk came from – the sound that, even if at something of a remove, still dominated hit hip hop production in 1997 – so maybe there was both an element of retooling the Wu-Tang style to keep it state-of-the-art, and also perhaps a little bit of Rza wanting to make sure his few peers recognised him as a musical craftsman, not just that guy who got lucky looped up dusty old breakbeats. Yet it still would strike a distinctly odd chord when, on the eve of the release of the 8 Diagrams album in 2007, and again ahead of its belated follow-up in 2014, Raekwon would lead a sullen rebellion against Rza, complaining that the group’s erstwhile leader was jeopardising his bands’ chances of having another big hit by cleaning up their signature, dirty sound and mucking about with live musicians. Truth be told, Rza did all that for the first time on Forever, minting a process that only became publicly contentious to his bandmates when he repeated it in the 21st century.

Ultimately, what does for Wu-Tang Forever is that you can see all too clearly – albeit perhaps only with hindsight’s perfect vision – that it was the moment where the Clan stopped being a group and became a shared vehicle used by ten solo artists. Although it retains the DNA of a Wu-Tang classic, a track like ‘Bells Of War’ comes off all wrong – like one of those manipulated photographs where the mirror image of the left side of a face is used instead of the real right side. The well-used Tom Scott drum break is akin to what you might expect, but the winsome synth line drenches the featherlight beat in something overly sweet and sticky. After U-God opens the track with esoteric braggadocio, Method Man uses drug-dealing metaphors to stress how Wu-Tang are ready to make rap rivals run for the hills; Rza’s verse is another of his syllable splatter-fests where 5% Nation references duel with curious similes and jarring non-sequiturs as he attempts to find new ways of defining success ("My tracks remain unforgettable like ol’ Nat Cole/Got to catch this paper to buy Shaquasia a glacier/Nebuchadnezzar skyscraper"), before Ghostface free-associates his way back from David Berkowitz and Einstein to the incident he and Rae wrote about in ‘The M.G.M.’ In between these individually interesting, spasmodically captivating, but only very tangentially related verses sit chunks of conversations apparently recorded with a very good quality microphone on a lightly used street – a weird kind of high-gloss version of the snippets of an interview taped off a badly-tuned radio that provided interludes between tracks on the debut. It’s like hearing snatches of work from four solo records stitched together haphazardly over a beat that does none of them much in the way of justice, while over-produced chunks of faux-overheard dialogue are bolted on afterwards.

Over the years, I’ve had several opportunities to talk to Rza, who remains one of the most reliably fascinating of interviewees. He’d stand out for what often feels like an inability to dissemble were it not a trait that seems to be shared by at least four of his bandmates. One conversation, in 2004, found talk turning to leadership, and the lack thereof in the band at the time.

"I’m a person that comes from a teaching of, we don’t deal with leaders, but we deal with leadership," he said. "That means each man got to carry his own bucket, and somebody’s gonna always be the one amongst you who leaves the footprints. In the beginning stages [of the group’s history] I took that upon me to make sure that I was dealing with leadership. And being the best knower of a situation, basically, whatever I said, everybody agreed with it; or, if they didn’t agree, they still submitted to it. It wasn’t until I start feelin’, personally, that I’m not here to be the motherfuckin’ leader, I’m just here to show the path, that I went from… I like to call it that I went from dictatorship to democracy, basically. And when I went to that democracy, yo, that, to me, was the decline."

And can you, I asked, pinpoint the start of that decline?

"Oh, I can pinpoint it exactly," he said immediately. "1997, when we was recording Wu-Tang Forever. Before, it was kinda like I was forcin’ people to do it; I can even remember having physical threats. I remember some brothers didn’t get along with other brothers in the beginning, and I had to say, ‘Nah, we treat each other like brothers’. But also, as people grow, you start changing. When I let that go, I kinda let go a little bit of the whole Wu-Tang. And it’s hard to get that back, ‘cos now you’re dealin’ with nine generals."

"How could you eat with nine emcees on one album?" Raekwon asked rhetorically in a 2004 interview, outlining the challenge the group faced from the start. The way they solved it was inspired, but ultimately unsustainable once the group became as successful as Forever ensured they did.

"We kinda didn’t really care about the money," he said of the early days of the band. "We felt like a group and we felt like we had somethin’ to prove. Rza came with the five-year plan, and we didn’t have nothin’ to lose. We was like, ‘You know what? Let’s go for it. You our big brother, you gonna drive the bus’. And that’s what happened – he drove the bus, and we took it to the next level after that."

But when the driver decided that he was no longer comfortable behind the wheel, it was clear that everyone on board the bus was going to have problems. Wu-Tang Forever may not be a record of the bus crashing through the barriers and going up in flames: Rza didn’t abandon control here, though it is clear he no longer wanted to be bothered with persuading each individual on board to agree to the route forward he had suggested. Rather, the album documents the moment where the purpose and direction of the first five years of the Clan’s plan ended. It’s the sound of ten people approaching a fork in the road, and rather than arguing about which road to choose, they’re looking around at each other, waiting for someone else to make the decision for them.

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