Wu-Tang 25: The Other Wu-Tang Albums

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).

It’s the 25th Anniversary of 36 Chambers, but it’s not the only group album of Wu-Tang. I’ve wrote about it before this feature was an idea. But it’s worth our time to examine the other group albums, and see how they hold up today.

Wu-Tang Forever

I forget that by 1997, Wu-Tang was huge. They became mainstream. Hell, the first rhyme on the album comes from GZA:

Reunited, double LP, world excited/ Struck a match to the underground, industry ignited

So what does one do? Release a double-album, the ultimate flex. The first time I listened to the album, I thought it was too bloated, the curse of many other double-albums. But in 2018, it feels tighter and more focused than my first memory. Although there are some songs that I still skip, the number has dropped. When I talk about RZA’s production, I used to view his peak from 1993 through that first run of solo albums before Forever came out, but now I have to add Forever in that peak. Imagine RZA taking 36 Chambers and all those solo albums, crushed them all into a pot to create this stew. Over two albums, I re-lived the arc of the Wu. 

Also, Triumph is still amazing.

The W

The turn of the millennium saw hip-hop during some growing pains. As previously mentioned, the general sound changed as hip-hop explodes into popularity. The Wu, collectively, felt those growing pains on this album as well. RZA’s sound widens, dipping into other genres for influence, and while that would prepare him for the movie-scoring and soundtrack work he would do later on in his career, it doesn’t work well for the rest of the group. Hollow Bones, for example, only Ghostface sounds the most natural on it. Conditioner has ODB literally rhyming through a phone since he was recorded while he was in jail. Do You Really (Thang, Thang) is an interesting experiment, but ultimately falls flat. 

To be fair, there are some typical Wu-Tang bangers here such as the Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab)/ Chamber Music, Careful (Click, Click), and The Monument. But The W is too inconsistent to be held up alongside 36 Chambers & Forever. 

Iron Flag

They turn around a year later and put out Iron Flag. This still remains my favorite post-36 Chambers group album. Instead of spreading out to different sounds and genres that make it difficult to get multiple personalities to mesh under, they go back and update the formula: Martial arts & string samples, heavy drums, synthesized instruments, alongside quick basslines, and keyboard notes. It’s what The W was trying to be: a marriage between classic Wu-Tang with the sheen from the “silver-suit” era it was birthed in.

Iron Flag is among the Wu’s best. It doesn’t have the impact of 36 Chambers, or the declarative stamp on the music industry like Forever, but it contains some of the Wu’s most valuable gems. 

8 Diagrams

Man, 2007 me was so excited for this. Released on December 11th, I made this a Christmas present to myself. Not only was it their first album together in years, but it was the first album after ODB died. The first time I heard Campfire, I broke my neck bobbing to it so hard. 

8 Diagrams has a strong first four tracks, then it gets off-kilter. There are songs that are reminiscent of that Wu-Tang sound, but RZA’s production became too much for the group. In retrospect, 8 Diagramscaused the rift within the group that became more public as the years went on. The movie-scoring RZA bled too much into the music, and while the sound itself isn’t off-putting (it makes sense once you consider this a public mourning for ODB), it knocks the rest of the group out of alignment. Couple that with this being the first album after ODB’s death, it’s not surprising that there was so much emotion going into, and coming out of this album. 

A Better Tomorrow

Seven years after, it’s more of the same. It’s still depressingly mediocre, with more public conflict to boot. Although, lyrically, they were ahead of the “vulnerable, grown-man rap” that Jay-Z perfected on 4:44, but that’s not enough to make multiple revisits to. 

The Saga Continues

To quote myself from the review:

The Saga Continues should’ve gone through a few more revisions. The production is there, but the verses from the members do sound phoned-in. What makes the previous songs stand out is that the members sound energized. They sound like they want to be there. Unfortunately, the music ebbs more than it flows. That energy isn’t maintained throughout the album, which left me wanting more from this album. To be clear, this is the best Wu-Tang album since Iron Flag. The Saga Continues is far from a disappointment, but it’s not what it could’ve been. Props to Mathematics for making RZA-style music better than RZA these days, but the Clan wasn’t in full form here. It’s hard to not think about how if U-God was able to resolve his issues with the group, and the Clan as a whole can come together under Mathematics’s production, then we might have the latter-day album that Wu-Tang deserves to have.

This wasn’t the Wu project I was hoping for. But there are flashes here of that album. The saga continues, and I’m hopeful that this still put them on the path for bigger and better things. Both for us fans and them as people.

For the sake of it, here are my own personal rankings of the post-36 Chamber albums:

  1. Iron Flag
  2. Wu-Tang Forever
  3. The Saga Continues
  4. The W
  5. 8 Diagrams
  6. A Better Tomorrow

Next Chamber: The Man With the Iron Fists 1 & 2

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