The RZA Hits
Ol' Dirty Bastard
Beneath the Surface
Method Man & Redman
By Keith Harris
The multilabel deal the members of the Wu-Tang Clan finagled half a decade ago, once the most revolutionary mass-marketing scheme since direct mail, is old news, trumped as a management paradigm by No Limit's old-fashioned centralized business juggernaut. And RZA isn't the only hip-hop entrepreneur crass enough to close his greatest-hits collection with a commercial for his crew's clothing line--but few could do it with the Abbot's sheer chutzpah. In the new spoken intro the Wu's renowned producer gives to "Wu Wear, the Garment Renaissance," the advertorial "bonus track" that caps The RZA Hits, he so glibly equates his conglomerate's business interests with the struggles of his people that it feels like he's rewritten "How I Got Over" as a jingle.
"Wu Wear," which originally appeared on the sound track to High School High, was actually a hit of sorts. In 1996, it inched up to number 60 on the Billboard chart, the same slot where the united Wu-Tang Clan's statement of purpose, "C.R.E.A.M." (which stands for "Cash Rules Everything Around Me"), had stalled two years before. Small numbers next to Method Man's smash duet with Mary J. Blige on "All I Need," not to mention that lame-ass Abercrombie & Fitch ad currently climbing the ladder. Then again, the numbers aren't everything.
Or are they? That's the true mystery of Shaolin. Paradoxically, the mass media infestation the Wu warriors gloat over points to their underground cultishness as the reason they matter. This team of ace paranoids could write a book on how to achieve popularity by writing lyrics as easy to read as Gravity's Rainbow. Like most hard-core rappers, the Wu consider glorifying the narcotics trade a less heinous crime than peddling dance beats, and yet they pioneered hip-hop haberdashery before Versace had even measured Puffy's inseam. You could call this muddle of messages black entrepreneurialsm, or you could call it the real New World Order, y'all. Record label as enterprise zone, bootstrap capitalism as civil rights movement.
The RZA Hits is a collection of 18 shots, most so sharp that such concerns seem moot. You can almost convince yourself you knew what these guys were talking about all along. Well, don't kid yourself--you didn't. Seeing the Wu stripped down to the essentials is perverse, like one of those stunted Caddies they made in the 80s, even borderline sacrilegious, like publishing Cliff's Notes to the Koran. After all, the collective bloat of their umpteen original releases, as a group and solo, wasn't just a side effect--RZA has insisted all along that it's the core of his aesthetic. His overproduction is mindfully wasteful, marked by the exhilarated desperation of those millennial wackos determined to use up the earth's resources before the Four Horsemen roll in.
But the problem with mixing economics and eschatology is that after the cosmos doesn't implode, you still have to balance the books. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the weird and brilliant debut, glowed with an impenetrable collective energy. But the sprawling Wu-Tang Forever, four years and countless solo albums later, was a disillusioning death march that seemed to reunite the MCs more out of duty than pleasure. Afraid to be bitten twice, those who took the shtick at face value the first time around are now wringing their hands over the most recent round of solo releases from Inspectah Deck, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and GZA.
Sure, the releases are uneven--but the music's always been uneven. The real issue is that the Wu-Tang enterprise seems to have replaced the enlightened self-interest of Adam Smith's sober invisible hand with the chaotic hand jive my grad school profs called Late Capitalism. The queries hip-hop heads have been posing are the same ones Alan Greenspan's been worrying over on Wall Street. When will the bubble burst? What exactly are the rules by which cash rules? What are the penalties of irrational exuberance? But it's a sucker's game to try to plumb the answers from within the Wu's communal mystagogy--the newest batch of solo albums draws a much clearer picture.
I know casual Wu-Tang fans who still have trouble distinguishing, say, Masta Killa from GZA, or remembering if Rollie Fingers is the same as Golden Arms. Juggling as many monikers as possible, the Wu actively court mistaken identity, tossing the confusion back in those wrinkled faces sniffing that "all rap sounds the same." Sure, you can have genteel tastes without being a racist. But it's a slippery slope from deeming black voices indistinguishable to deeming brown skins interchangeable. The Wu-Tang Clan parodies the notion that black America speaks with one voice by utilizing nine voices (or more, if you count Wu cousins like Cappadonna and the Sunz of Man) and pretending the resulting cacophony is a symphony. But, as the disparity of the recent releases indicates, it's a coalition in danger of splitting at the seams.
The most raggedy patch in the Wu-Tang quilt has entitled his latest gash N***a Please--the uncharacteristically demure stars are his, not mine. Ol' Dirty Bastard is the only Wu-Tang MC willing to party like he knows what year it is.
If his plaintive rambles about women and money and rants like "I wanna give a shout out to the Eskimos / I wanna give a shout out to the submarines," aren't as impromptu as they sound, then he's even more of a genius than I thought. But whether he's recommending cocaine as an antihistamine or desecrating the Billie Holiday standard "Good Morning Heartache," his overriding compulsion is, to paraphrase Puffy, kissing women in places none of his cohorts would dare stick their faces. And his various producers contribute a sexy, funky R & B feel RZA would never countenance.
I don't agree with those sober rap scholars who'd convict Big Baby Jesus of Uncle Tom-foolery, not in a hip-hop nation that's left Busta Rhymes untried for treason and anointed hit-and-miss lunatic Kool Keith the holy fool. But, as Ol' Dirty's pal Chris Rock would say, I understand. Faulting his spotty verbal acuity is about as pertinent as stating that Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" loses the beauty of the melody. But without the remainder of the group to check him, he rages like an id in search of an ego.
Fans of intractable dignity will find that ego on GZA's Beneath the Surface, the sort of disc prized by the aesthetes who dissect Nas couplets and worship Paid in Full. Inspectah Deck's Uncontrolled Substance is equally respectable: versatile but consistent, scrappy with a grain of desperation in his voice, Deck's the most underrated member of the clan. He's a social realist struggling unsuccessfully to maintain his reportorial objectivity. But though his self-production provides sharper detail than RZA's--"Femme Fatale" chases a sly guitar line with a keyboard that could have been lifted from "Rockit" (though according to the credits it wasn't)--his lyrical scope is claustrophobically limiting.
Blackout!, a collaboration between Method Man and Newark MC Redman, comes the closest to capturing the uncontrollable camaraderie of the earliest Wu singles. "Do you want to get high, man?" Redman calls. "Does Pinocchio have wooden balls, man?" Meth drawls back. As on the first track of The RZA Hits, "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothing Ta F' Wit" (from Enter the Wu-Tang), the MCs finish each other's lines, not with the deliberate precision of Run-D.M.C. but with a hazy gestalt that suggests the workings of a shared mind.
The problem isn't that the Wu-Tang MCs have spread themselves too thin, but that their solo pursuits have increasingly isolated them from one another. What once seemed like an invasion on a dozen fronts now looks like a diaspora, the work of scattered mystics who've lost contact with their homeland. RZA would have been prescient to end his compilation with "Triumph," from Wu-Tang Forever, in which the MCs take orderly turns on the mike, sounding like they've never been in the same room.
Instead, The RZA Hits ends more hopefully, sandwiching the unflinching "C.R.E.A.M." between the two singles that project the most palpable sense of community, embracing the second-person familiarity that hip-hop so often shirks. Method Man's "All I Need" (not the version with Blige) declares allegiance across gender lines, while Ghostface Killah's soulful duet (with Blige) "All That I Got Is You" is a loving but harsh dedication to a loving but flawed mother. The moral: life is hectic, but we will get through it together. At least as much as the cuts included from the first record, these hark back to a time when the Wu-Tang's joint venture projected the warm vibe of a family business rather than the mercenary values of a corporation.