Wu-Tang 25: Quarter Century of Shaolin is a year-long series celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Determining what is the “best” solo album is all opinion, so for this edition, I called in two people to join me.
First up is Selective-Hearing’s Owner/Admin/RZA/Aki-P/Tsunku, Greg:
When TOZ approached me to do this I found it to be a daunting task. There are a plethora of Wu-Tang solo albums and to be completely honest I found a lot of them did not age gracefully as time has gone by. As I went through the Wu solo discography I discovered that narrowing my list down to a few possible candidates was not as hard as I thought it would be.
My honorable mentions are the following:
- Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
- Method Man – Tical 2000 (1998)
- Ghostface Killah – Bulletproof Wallets (2001)
In the end it was GZA’s 1999 album Beneath The Surface that ended up being the album that left the longest lasting impression on me.
Take away the skits and the intro/outro and you have 12 tracks of solid Hip-Hop. Not that you should skip those. Unlike other albums, the skits actually have meaningful messages that relate to the songs surrounding them. Anyway, the productions have the grit of the Wu-Tang collective but don’t veer off into abstract musical concepts that lose the listener. Nor are there an superfluous Kung-Fu movie samples that plagued the early Wu-Tang solo releases.
The fact that the RZA only produced one song on this album (1112) leaving the rest of the beats to Wu’s secondary production crew to do the heavy lifting may have something to do with why Beneath The Surface sounds so different from other Wu solo projects.
GZA sounds straight up serious on here, even the guest spots follow suit. There’s no clowning on this album whatsoever. It’s just one constant banger after another. All killer no filler is the saying right?
Choosing the best solo album is difficult, but there are three contenders in my personal pantheon. Honorable mention goes to Masta Killa’s No Said Date – this came out long after my Wu fandom peaked, but it does a wonderful job of keeping the old school formula fresh. And forced to choose, my knee-jerk reaction is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, a monumental achievement filled with provocatively thoughtful songs that make the listener pause in awe.
But I’m ultimately going to go with Blackout! from Method Man and Redman. Yes, I know it’s a duo album and not a solo – but the same can be said of Cuban Linx. And Redman isn’t officially Wu, but neither was Cappadonna at first and Reggie’s basically family.
This is not the most challenging album – it’s a Cheech and Chong comedy to Cuban Linx’s epic Godfather drama. And yet, I admire how hard it was to make such a crowd pleaser. The secret weapon is their third partner, Erick Sermon of EPMD. Sermon produced the best half of the album, giving huge swaggering boom-bap hooks with a smooth digital veneer to keep it modern. The playful callbacks to early rap – like the brr stick em on the title track – are audacious but don’t feel gimmicky as the delivery is unforgivingly smooth. As a duo, Meth and Red have their own personalities – Method Man earned his charismatic poetic complexity from sparring constantly with his Wu peers, while Redman is unrepentantly face-punchingly grimy. The chemistry elevates their marijuana-stoked hijinks, bestowing a picaresque playfulness even in the album’s darkest moments.
I also deeply appreciate that Blackout! has LL Cool J’s second greatest rap performance ever on “Four Corners”, produced by the RZA. Red and Meth not only brought out the best in each other but also in OG living legends. Blackout! is funky, funny, and catches you off-guard. I can’t say it’s Wu’s best objectively, but decades later I still never tire of its very specific charms.
Thanks to both Greg and Ray for their help.
I mentioned what I thought was the best solo album previously, and I’m sticking with it.
To piggyback off what Ray said, if Cuban Linx I is the Godfather, then Liquid Swords is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 one, obviously). It opens with the Shogun Assassin monologue, then begins a 12-song eerie, unsettling, almost haunting journey. It’s the best marriage of lyrics and production of any solo Wu-Tang album. RZA created these dark, foreboding environments, and GZA walks through these settings as if he is Leatherface. It makes sense, GZA is the head. Sure, some of the lyrics could’ve used some editing here and there, but it still holds up. Liquid Swords has 4th Chamber, which outside of any group song, is one of the best posse cuts in the Wu catalog. If that wasn’t enough, you get Shadowboxin’ right behind it, with that first verse from Method Man being his best verse, ever. GZA isn’t the most flamboyant, arrogant, charismatic, or bombastic member of the group, but his calm, serious demeanor rounds the group out. When they explored it, they found the makings of the best Wu-Tang solo album.
GZA – Grandmasters (2005) – I want more of DJ Muggs and GZA together. Muggs is the first person outside of the Wu umbrella to sucessfully mimic that Wu sound, but he still maintains his own unique signature. Chess is the theme of the album, and at 43 minutes, GZA puts you in check and you’ll want to go back and figure out how he did it.
Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006) – “You ain’t been hungry since Supreme Clientele.” Just Blaze does his best Mickey from Rocky impression, then it’s just pure destruction from Ghost. The story on the album isn’t new, even by his standards (He sells cocaine, and does it well), but he refreshed the sound, with oddly enough, no production from RZA. He sounds energized, revitalized, ready to remind everyone he’s the best rapper in the Wu. Also 9 Milli Bros. reunites the entire Wu, and it’s one of the best songs on the album.
Next Chamber: Wu-Tang & The Five-Percent Nation