25 years after the tightly-knit nine-man cell broke out of their Staten Island confines to become the all-conquering juggernaut that steamrollered its way to the pinnacle of rap, the Wu-Tang Clan is a much more disparate and scattered constellation today. Beyond the festival circuit and the odd Record Store Day reissue, it seems the Clan as a collective unit really only stir the social media news feed when they’re trading shots with the odious Martin Shkreli. A reflection, perhaps, of their diminished influence within the genre.
Which is a shame. For although some of the crew have been M.I.A. for a few years now, a few core members are still quietly but consistently turning out brilliant music: the rugged lo-fi comic book pulp of Inspectah Deck’s Czarface project with 7L & Esoteric, for instance, or ‘Twelve Reasons To Die’, Ghostface Killah’s crime opera collabo with Adrian Younge.
Raekwon, despite his decidedly patchy post-‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’ track record, falls very much into this latter camp. 2009’s ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II’ and 2011’s ‘Shaolin Vs Wu-Tang’ remain overlooked gems. His last effort, 2015’s ‘F.I.L.A. (Fly International Luxurious Art)’, was certainly uneven - clumsy concessions towards the modern rap landscape sat awkwardly amongst sporadic moments of brilliance. But it offered enough to suggest that the erstwhile Shallah Raekwon The Chef still has some fuel left in the tank.
New album ‘The Wild’ bolsters this line of argument further. It successfully avoids repeating its predecessor’s missteps - French Montana guest spots, anyone? - and instead sees Raekwon fully embrace his rap elder statesman role while reminiscing on his younger days (an approach that Brooklyn emcee Masta Ace quite magnificently executed on last year’s excellent ‘The Falling Season’ album).
“We was youngsters, ‘80s babies gettin’ in shit/Stolen cars/Fell from monkey bars, flipping ‘n’ shit”, he rhymes on ‘Can’t You See’, its warm, throwback soul proving a fine setting as Rae name-checks Malcolm X and MLK amidst recollections of being chased by police as a teen. This nostalgic vibe looms large throughout the album. ‘Marvin’, which features Cee-Lo Green, is an accomplished biography of Marvin Gaye which underlines Raekwon’s considerable writing talent, while ‘Visiting Hour’ and ‘The Reign’ look back on the Wu-Tang rapper’s long journey from hustling on those storied Shaolin streets to rap stardom.
That said, ‘The Wild’ not solely a soft-focus flicker through faded Polaroids. The jagged menace of ‘Nothing’ finds our steely protagonist reassuming his underworld hardman persona with aplomb. Luxury red leather, Benzes and Polo Ralph Lauren attire intermingle with AKs, pools of blood, mud and a strep throat subplot in the dead of night, as New Jersey producer Frank G’s ghostly backdrop – spun around a chopped-up vocal loop – channels a nightmarish, off-kilter vibe.
Similarly, if ‘The Corner’, a duet with Lil’ Wayne, doesn’t entirely convince you (along with ‘M&N’, it forms a mid-album slump), then the curtain-raising single ‘This Is What It Comes Too’ should. What on the surface feels like standard ‘90s-boom-bap-by-numbers fare is soon lit up by Raekwon throwing verbal kerosene across a towering sonic fire built around a heap of dusty old Melvin Bliss breakbeats. A remix guest starring – who else - Ghostface Killah is currently doing the rounds too, once again displaying the pair’s unrivalled chemistry.
For years, hip-hop was considered a young person’s sport. Yet filed alongside Run The Jewels’ forward-thinking approach, the late-career flourishes of Roc Marciano and Brownsville Ka, and De La Soul’s Grammy-nominated moves, ‘The Wild’ offers solid proof that rappers in their middle ages are far from a spent force.
Words: Hugh Leask
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