“Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang”
(Ice H20 Records)
When Staten Island creative visionary The RZA claimed that the rap industry would witness a near takeover when the Wu-Tang dropped their debut album in 1993, perhaps even he didn’t dream that almost twenty years later Hip-Hop heads would still be anticipating releases from the Clan with a level of respect and excitement rarely maintained in the fickle world of music. That said, in recent years the Wu flag has largely been kept flying by the inimitable Ghostface Killah, whose impeccable catalogue and high levels of quality control have seen him labelled the most consistent soloist of the Clan, with former big guns such as Method Man and even The RZA himself being distracted somewhat from the rap game by outside endeavours.
Amongst continuing internal Clan politics and the outside success of some of his crew has stood the group’s self-proclaimed Chef, the sharp-tongued criminology kingpin Raekwon. After contributing memorable verses to early Wu classics such as “Protect Ya Neck” and “C.R.E.A.M.”, Rae delivered a knockout blow to the game (with assistance from his brother-from-another-mother Ghostface) when he dropped the phenomenal “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” in 1995.
Full of “witty, unpredictable fly s**t”, “Cuban Linx…” was a sonic crime saga of epic proportions that elevated Raekwon to the level achieved by greats of the time such as Biggie and Nas, cementing his place in rap’s history books and, like the aforementioned kings of New York, setting himself incredibly high standards to match with future projects. Which was a burden the Shaolin soldier struggled with on albums such as 1999’s “Immobilarity” and 2003’s “The Lex Diamond Story” (although to be fair, “Immobilarity” stands up as a much better body of work today than it did when heard for the first time in 1999 with the inevitable “Cuban Linx…” follow-up baggage fans brought to the project).
Over the past few years, however, Rae’s career has seen unexpected levels of rejuvenation, with the razor-edged rapper dropping mixtapes, participating in last year’s “Wu-Massacre” project and, of course, finally delivering “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II…”, an album which surprised many by capturing the spirit of its unmatchable predecessor without feeling like a hollow attempt to relive past glories.
Obviously riding high from his new found position at the forefront of the “grown-man” rap pack, Raekwon’s promise of dropping another full-length opus so quickly after previous releases had some worrying that he would undo all of his recent hard work by putting out a rushed, sub-par effort. Yet far from being just a collection of throwaway tracks found in the vaults, “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang” is a fairly well thought-out project built around a loose kung-fu inspired concept with outside input from a variety of (mainly) credible guest rappers and producers, albeit at times with some mixed results.
The opening Scram Jones-produced title track makes the listener feel as though they’ve just been dropped into the middle of a high-octane action film scene, with Rae relentlessly attacking the cinematic track with his trademark dense word association flow, which in this particular instance gives a stylistic nod towards Smoothe Da Hustler’s mid-90s banger “Broken Language”. The following “Every Soldier In The Hood” finds the Chef and Method Man making a joint statement of OG rap supremacy over an effectively sparse Erick Sermon beat that sounds nothing like the EPMD member’s usual brand of muddy funk.
“Silver Rings” reunites Raekwon with Ghostface for a verse apiece over punchy drums, with the pair delivering sharp darts with cool precision. The dark “Butter Knives” will definitely satisfy fans looking for that gritty 36th Chamber sound, as Detroit’s Bronze Nazareth concocts a pounding blend of distorted drums, kung-fu samples and dramatic strings for Rae to obliterate with colourful boasts of being the “emperor of slang lords”.
Busta Rhymes drops by to deliver a slick verse on “Crane Style”, which sounds like a cross between a nature documentary and an old-school Zulu Nation beat, whilst Rae finally links once again with a certain Nasir Jones on “Rich And Black” for a potent display of lyrical dexterity, sixteen years after they last connected on the exotic “Verbal Intercourse”.
Other cuts such as the soulful Kenny Dope-produced “From The Hills” and the menacing Alchemist-laced “Ferry Boat Killaz” are further proof that Raekwon’s lyrical sword hasn’t become blunt over the years, with the Wu member spitting his usual heady blur of 80s memories, hustling references, unique slang and crime rhymes.
Yet whilst there’s plenty of material here to satisfy hungry Hip-Hop junkies, “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang” also contains moments where the dots just don’t join up. A few of the collaborations included lack chemistry, with the verses from Inspectah Deck and Lloyd Banks on “Chop Chop Ninja” and “Last Trip To Scotland” respectively sounding as though they’d been found in the studio and added on as an afterthought. “Molasses” with Rick Ross also seems forced, with the supposed Miami drug lord’s basic flow sounding even more awkward sandwiched inbetween the ice-cold, complex lines of Raekwon and the animated story-telling of Ghostface.
Production also lets “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang” down in places, with the upbeat”Rock N Roll” (a thinly-veiled attempt at a club banger) sounding out of place amongst the mainly murky soundscapes. Elsewhere, the plodding, generic board work heard on “Masters Of Our Fate” spoils what could’ve been a classic collaboration between Rae and Roots rhyme master Black Thought had they had a more dynamic beat to weave their heavyweight wordplay around.
Overall, whilst this album may not be the complete return to the traditional Wu sound some may have felt its title suggested, “Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang” is a solid effort from Raekwon that will only add to his legacy rather than take anything away from it. The Chef is undoubtedly a true master of his chosen lyrical chamber, but if there’s any lesson for Raekwon to take away from this latest release, it’s that perhaps sometimes he should be just a little more careful when choosing both emcees to spar with and the beats over which to unleash his formidable style of tongue-fu.