originally published December 15, 1998 / VILLAGE VOICE
Long before white boys began em bracing in football stadiums and throwing up Jesus for patriarchy, long before Chris Rock served a pathetic, conservative personal responsibility mantra as some new kind of revolutionary comedy, there were the gods. Oh God, the gods. Back in the early '90s, the Earth Medina dragged me to Fort Greene Park a couple of times for those Sunday "Parliament" sessions. They could be massive—I'm talking hundreds of gods, a few dozen Earths, and 12 straight hours of mathematics. The occasional original man would stand up, nuts in one hand, turkey dog in the other, and tell us how as god he had mastered malt liquor, the Times Square turnstiles, or crack. That's my word. The drill, the John 3:16 if you will—Civilization: Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding. Cultural Refinement. But mostly it was good old-fashioned essentialism. Us the original, obviously superior Cushites, reacting to policies and laws with vague mind-over-matter Masonry and numerology. It makes perfect sense to me that the Five Percent Nation would be born, thrive, and to this day survive in NYC. We are a people in search of nationhood.
The Wu-Tang Clan have always been a super–sci-fi, dusted, Dungeons and Dragons–ish, dense god body. Their communal approach, their movement—simultaneously collective and fiercely individual—is all a true and living lesson on survival in the cannibalistic music industry. Producer RZA's sonic melange has ranged from the sub-basement Tical to the murderous Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (yes, violence has a tone), to the love an them reworking of the Motown classic, "You're All I Need." He knows to pull out, be spare, for a spatially innovative lyricist like Genius. He drowns out lesser MCs like the Gravediggaz, Sunz of Man, and himself with chaos.
Wu-Tang have diversified their business by venturing into fashion (Wu-Wear) but their muted sense of style says drug scrambler and is as identifiable as Puff's Sunday Baptist best. They are often incoherent in interviews, with the exception of Method Man and RZA, who are the only two that will always show up. They are inaccessible. They are rock stars. Still, though the Wu reunion album broke sales records its first week (black gods calling whitey devil, even in William Gibson speak, has always brought out the Norman Mailer in whiteboys), 1997 was a Bad Boy year. It was a tearful moment. One that Ole Dirty interrupted, but a marker nonetheless. It wasn't just that Puff had polished hip-hop's edge—Wu don't compete with Mase anyway. Oracles of the underground, they raise their own stakes. And by that standard Wu-Tang Forever was plain listless, uninspired. I doubt RZA drove around listening to Forever.
And I seriously doubt that he'll be banging his solo alter-ego joint RZA as Bobby Digital. RZA is not a good MC. Period. His aggressive delivery may be crammed with knowledge and mathematics (his mastery of the "lessons" is street legend and is a large part of his leadership position within the Clan), but his rhyme style grates the nerves. Perhaps, as a producer, he intentionally subverts his mic skills. A saboteur on his own shit. I've even toyed with the idea that the shower effect you get when he literally spits lyrics is a result of his vampire gold fronts, thus a comment on consumerism and South African gold mines or something. Now, total deconstructionists (especially the architects of techno in my hometown Detroit) would argue that pleasure is last in a long, cold list of aesthetics. And I'm tolerant, I actually find some illbient pleasurable. But RZA as an MC asks too much even of the most devout Wu disciple. Though, in the tradition, there are those who will herald it simply because it is so intolerable.
And then there is the irreconcilable nastiness of his misogyny. When he and his live-in Earth get into an argument he is acerbic yet devoid of wit. "Get the fuck out my house/'Fore I grab you by your hair and slap dick to your mouth/...Girl, I'll fuckin slave trade your ass." Her crimes: "You don't cook/You don't clean.../Sleep all day/Eat/Gain weight.../Started with the body of a model/Pussy tight as a pharmaceutical bottle.../Now when I fuck you that shit echo/Cuz your pussy is so hollow..." A throwback to early '90s, post-Cube for sure, but disturbingly convincing. I imagine again, since I've been locked in far too many debates with Wu heads, that this naked hatred of women is some kind of remedy to hip-hop that in their minds had become too bitch friendly. (I mean, "most of your fans wear high heels" was supposed to register as a dis). Ole Dirty appears only a few bars before the opening of "Fuck What You Think" to calm Earths: "Bitches we love you, motherfuckas." But even if you've never been to Parliament, you know that kind of love is pure slavery. Savage. Not at all godlike.
Method Man has always been regarded as the friendlier, slightly suave, completely accessible clan member, winning Grammys, appearing on joints with Boyz II Men, and racking up film credits. And in pop terms he is the only true star of his tribe. He simply radiates. But he hates that. He wears milky white contacts and fangs, comes out with his hair half braided and crust around his mouth just to dim the appeal to the ladies. And we are not discouraged. We see his attempts to grimy up in the same way we would an impossibly beautiful, serious woman doing some thing like gain 40 pounds. He is elegant. He is beautiful to look at and he is magnetically sexy. He is also the finest of Wu's MCs. (Although I've long waved Inspectah Deck's flag and know like you do that Raekwon's Only Built is the Wu's most perfect album.) His distinct gravelly voice is no crutch or gimmick. Meth's style is relentless. He rhymes like a perfectly reasonable cat with a volcanic temper. He is as witty as he can be hostile.
His last album, Tical, was one that Meth spent too much time making excuses for, since after the Wu debut and Rae and right before Genius it is, in my book, the third best Wu album. Those that dismissed it were the underground's version of playa haters (a term I apologize for even employing). Meth's appeal matched with his undeniable talent plain intimidates boys in the all-boys club. And the dense, battle hymn production on Tical, which many argue is the problem with the album, is exactly the kind of sonic work that has earned RZA a reputation as an innovator.
Because of the lukewarm street reception of the platinum Tical, Meth is hungrier than ever on Judgement Day. His sophomore album has the focus and conviction no one seemed to be able to muster for Forever. He is as generous as any Wu when it comes to passing the mic. "Play IV Keeps," featuring Prodigy and Havoc of Mobb Deep and Deck, is so riotous it will make you want to rob someone. Or at least run a red light. But Meth's brightest moments are his own. "Re tro Godfather" loops the classic "I'll Do Anything for You" in a way that is irreverent but uncompromising. "Break Ups 2 Make Ups," a collabo with D'Angelo, is a sour shout out to an ex who wants one more chance, but it comes from the space of some one who actually once had love for the sis, not just the circumference of her. "Sweet Love" featuring Street Life and Capadonna is a street serenade sequel to Raekwon's "Ice Cream." At 110 bpm, the millennium-phobic title track "Judgement Day" is a sequel to the classic "Bring the Pain." "Killing Fields" is a breathless battle rhyme done solo. The album is both anarchic and appealing, hardcore and thoughtful.
How ironic that the god with the most shine would emerge the most consistently listenable of this subpop rowdy bunch? While RZA seems to be burning out—after overseeing almost a dozen albums in less than six years he has begun to relinquish the board; the gods Tru Master, 4th Disciple, and even Deck and Meth submit tracks on Judgement Day—Method Man is picking up steam. I don't doubt the two will resent the juxtaposition. In their communal god body a win for one is a win for all. But they've been shooting like 50 percent for a long time now. Not supreme being status by anyone's religion.