has never been modest about its skill set. With hundreds of releases tied to the Wu-Tang brand, this now-legendary '90s gangsta rap collective has always been upfront about what it brings to the table.
If you know your Wu, you know nobody else cooks, serves, and keeps 'em coming back like the crew do. And if the deal goes dirty, you can bet any of the Clan's nine members -- RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Ol' Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.) -- know their way around a glock like a Shaolin samurai wields his katana.
Of course, Wu-Tang's self-mythologizing gangsta narratives proclaim, unequivocally, the group to be the baddest. But the members' incredibly dense storytelling -- not their shootout or swordplay skills -- might actually be the greatest display of the Clan's prowess.
In 2011, mainstream radio hip-hop is dominated by trap-rap and dance music. Meanwhile, a quick survey of the underground (that is, the Internet, which brings the underground to the surface more with every tweet) proves that just below the realm of popular music, rap is ruled by young-as-hell postmodern miscreants like Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill 'Em All and the increasingly absurd Lil B. But if you make it to the Fillmore Miami Beach on September 13, it would appear hip-hop hasn't aged a day past November 9, 1993.
That was the fateful day when the MCs from the Slums of Shaolin -- backed up by The RZA's unmistakably slinky instrumentals -- released their genre-defining album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and provided the world (and themselves) with a timeless blueprint for gritty tales of drugs, money, and urban warfare.
While Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard quickly rose to the top of the pops and RZA was establishing himself as a master producer, the '90s would slowly see the emergence of Wu Tang's bench players, all of whom ultimately proved to be just as worthy as the starters.
Case in point: Raekwon, who introduced gangsta rap to its second phase when he dropped Only Built 4 Cuban Linx in 1995. Of course, the genre was always founded upon tales of rock cookin', corner slangin', and gunplay. But Cuban Linx elevated the formula to new heights. The album blurred the line between fact and fiction better than before. It was almost as though Raekwon the Chef was rapping straight from the crack kitchen. His stories about deals gone wrong were presented with stunning detail, and with maximum embellishment.
While Gucci Mane, Lil Wayne, and Wiz Khalifa have all established themselves in recent years for associative content and wordplay over simple meaning, Raekwon's street epics are straightforward yet linguistically rich universes not unlike a gangsta Illiad.
Cuban Linx also introduced the world to Ghostface Killah, who had been previously buried near the bottom of Wu-Tang's ranks. While Rae provided the call, Ghostface was the response. And with RZA's impeccable production as the backdrop, the album seemingly distilled the Killa Beez essence into one of the group's finest moments.
Although not as explicitly over the top as Big Baby Jesus, Ghostface soon emerged from the pack as Wu's wild card. If Raekwon was the best storyteller (and ODB the craziest, Method Man the hardest, etc.), Ghost may be the ensemble's most unique voice. While still a gangsta bard among gangsta bards, he was always less bound to the central Wu-Tang narrative. Often, his clear, slightly shouted rhymes were injected with opaque street terminology, absurd non-sequitors, and proto-Weezy stream-of-consciousness tangents.
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In the wake of Ghostface's late arrival, the MC seemingly switched places with Raekwon. While the former became the Wu-Tang member who mattered most in 2000, achieving particular crossover with indie audiences, the latter was stuck trying to figure out how to follow up on one of the greatest rap records ever. And even though he managed to release a smattering of solo albums and mixtapes over the last 16 years, Raekwon has been so trapped by the legacy of Cuban Linx that his first truly acclaimed record since '96 was the sequel, 2009's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II.
No record is a better indication of the Wu's clock-stopping ability than Pt. II. Despite lyrical nods to hip-hop's contemporary era (including multiple salutes to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard and harsh jabs at commercial hip-hop), the album shows no sign of any influence from the past decade and a half. If anything, it seems as though Wu-Tang's soldiers only listen to their own records. And why not? If the gangsta epic ain't broken, why fix it?
Ghostface, Raekwon, and Mobb Deep as part of the Rock the Bells Festival Series. Tuesday, September 13. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $30 to $45 plus fees via livenation.com. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.