Wu-Tang Clan refuse to give up on the sound they’ve cultivated for decades – and it’s starting to sound stale. Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy dives into the New York collective’s latest, The Saga Continues, and hopes for a happy ending.
It’s been a decade since Wu-Tang Clan released 8 Diagrams, an album acted as a grand finale for the Wu as a group. It merged traditionalist, razor-sharp New York rap with Wu head honcho RZA’s psychedelic impulses, they grieved for member Ol’ Dirty Bastard who had died in 2004 and it served up the weirdness that had always been abundant in Wu projects. 2014’s A Better Tomorrow undid this odd perfection. If 8 Diagrams showed RZA scratching his musical itch, by Tomorrow it was coming out in a rash, a collection of shiny jam-band faff and uninspired verses. For the first time, it felt like Wu-Tang really didn’t have to be around Forever. And the group continues to dismantle the spoils of their separate paths with their latest, The Saga Continues.
RZA had hastily dubbed the album “a masterpiece” when the album was initially announced, lauding the production by long-time Clan affiliate Mathematics. It was an opportunity for the long-time second banana to bring together the classic album entrusted in him, something that pulls the classic Wu sound out while still staying contemporary. To get in the mindset, the producer listened to Enter the Wu-Tang and Dr. Dre’s 2001 – albums that are 24- and 18-years old and it is apparent in its sound, which grips on the past.
At best, Math falls on old tricks with tight verses over the effective combo of disembodied mewls and glum soul samples (single ‘People Say’); at worst, he’s shoehorning Auto-tune (‘G’d Up’) and revitalizing the faceless studio-sheen of G-Unit album tracks (‘Frozen’). It’s inessential Wu-Tang, but in an odd way, a comfort after the last few years of single-copy art pieces and the lackluster Better Tomorrow.
But the album also plays like an affiliate project akin to Killa Beez or Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture, with some Clan members more present than others. Method Man is all over this thing; Ghostface Killah is here, revived from his post-Pretty Toney malaise; Inspectah Deck isn’t quite bombing atomically, but hasn’t lost his clever touch, rapping “my price hiking like the pills Martin Shkreli sell” on ‘Lesson Learn’d’. But GZA only has about four bars on the album and, although his appearance is almost like self-parody (“a rhyme is a struggle from conception”), it is a brief joy. U-God is not present at all.
Wu-Tang Clan defined their legacy with a sizeable vault of classic music, but their catalogue still includes miscellania galore – Saga nods more to the latter. Early in the album, honorary Wu-Gambino Redman announces the producer’s name and mimes an arena roaring. It’s a little sad knowing Saga may be his best shot at an arena, but it’s a sweet gesture – a heartwarmer to file alongside the rest of the Wu-miscellania.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy is on Twitter.