25 Years of Wu-Tang: The Neverending Saga of Hip-Hop’s Most Dominant Group
Photo by Bob Berg
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November 9th, 2017 marks 25 years since the Wu-Tang Clan burst onto the scene with their debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Over those 25 years since, the musical output has never stopped, and the Clan has remained one of the most iconic groups in hip-hop history. To celebrate the occasion, we’re taking a look back at every single year from 1993 onwards, and the music released between the nine original members of the group. There have been ups and downs on their journey to becoming cultural icons, and we’re going through all of it, as we revisit both the group and solo albums released by the Wu-Tang Clan.
Follow us as we go through the years of music from RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon The Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, and Method Man.
Part 1: The Five-Year Domination
1993: Enter The Wu-Tang
By now it’s safe to say that the Wu-Tang Clan is most known for that five-year period between 1993 and 1997, when they completely dominated hip-hop and brought on a shift in both music culture and business. Their debut album had a lasting impact, now known as one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time, and their style remains unique and original.
Wu-Tang stood out with their martial arts approach to rap, from the way they competitively sparred on the mic, to RZA sampling actual kung-fu films in the production. The format of their lead single, “Protect Ya Neck,” was completely unheard of at the time, with eight MCs rapping back-to-back with no chorus. And let’s not forget their unique slang, with phrases like “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” now permanently embedded in pop culture. There’s not much to say about Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) that hasn’t already been said in hundreds of publications. Nine young artists from Staten Island and Brooklyn, New York, got together with their unique styles and personalities, and made a hardcore masterpiece.
So how does a group with nine MCs follow up their debut album, after shaking up the underground and becoming a known force to be reckoned with? The answer is they don’t, at least not right away. There were so many personalities in the group which hip-hop heads still needed time getting to know, and so they did what had never been done in the music business before: they had individual Clan members sign solo deals with other record companies, and proceeded to give the fans solo albums to established a stronger bond, all while waving that Wu-Tang flag. First up was Method Man, who had a standout solo track on 36 Chambers, and released his debut solo album Tical in November of 1994.
Method Man’s solo debut had that gritty, underground style of Wu-Tang’s debut, but also brought us one of hip-hop’s greatest slow jams with “All I Need.” He was already a standout member of the Clan, and this album pushed him further to becoming one of its most popular members.
1995: The Solo Classics
By 1995, Wu-Tang was moving in full force and putting up numbers. 36 Chambers earned a platinum plaque two years after its release, and Method Man’s Tical was certified gold at the start of the year. Keeping with the solo releases, Ol’ Dirty Bastard released Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, and Raekwon released Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, both albums going gold before the end of the year. GZA closed out ’95 with what’s often critically debated as the best Wu-Tang solo album, Liquid Swords (which would be certified platinum twenty years later).
While the solo albums allowed fans to connect more with the individual members of the group, it also gave the Clan as a whole more shine, as all of the members made guest appearances on each others’ albums. Even though they were split up on different labels and releasing solo projects, it all still felt like Wu-Tang moving as a unit, with RZA handling most of the production. For Cuban Linx, all the Wu-Tang members took on alternate personas and bought into Raekwon’s concept of creating a mafia flick in music format; a focus on lyricism and wordplay was put on for GZA’s Liquid Swords; and Ol’ Dirty Bastard brought his own style of chaos on Return to the 36 Chambers.
Wu-Tang’s solo albums released in 1995 remain some of the most critically acclaimed and influential hip-hop albums of all time.
Continuing their winning streak, Wu-Tang released Ghostface Killah’s debut solo album, Ironman in 1996. After being prominently featured on Raekwon’s Cuban Linx album, even appearing on the cover art, Ghostface was already popular amongst Wu-Tang fans by the time his album dropped. He picked up where he left off, having much of the same mafioso vibe of Cuban Linx, but with RZA lacing his beats with more soul samples. This album also saw the rise of future tenth member of the Clan, Cappadonna, who dropped arguably the most famous verse of his career on Ironman.
While Ghostface held things down in 1996, the rest of the Clan were planning something big for the following year.
1997: Wu-Tang Forever
In mid-1997, the Wu-Tang Clan reunited to release their double-disc follow up to 36 Chambers, and it marked the end to RZA’s five-year plan to bring the Clan to the top of the mountain. Wu-Tang Forever topped the charts, going 4x platinum before the end of the year, and cemented Wu-Tang as one of the most dominant groups in hip-hop history. With several members now having star power behind their name, it was epic to see them all join forces for another album, and the double-disc length ensured each of the nine MCs got a fair amount of shine.
From Ghostface Killah’s vivid storytelling on “Impossible” to Inspectah Deck’s showcase of elite lyrical craftsmanship on “Triumph,” Wu-Tang Forever had some of the group’s most memorable moments.
Part 2: Killa Beez on the Swarm
With Wu-Tang now a household name for hip-hop heads, it was time for a second wave of solo albums. 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever marked the achievement of RZA’s goal to bring the Clan to stardom, and so he loosened his grip over their solo projects and allowed other producers and collaborators to come into the fold.
1998: Bobby Digital & Judgement Day
Riding off the success of their double-album, Wu-Tang wouldn’t have any new releases until November of 1998, when both Method Man and RZA released new solo albums. Method Man followed up his debut with Tical 2000: Judgement Day, going for a more apocalyptic vibe with the new millenium approaching, and RZA took on a new persona for Bobby Digital In Stereo, showcasing the evolution of his production along with his lyricism. While RZA achieved some solo success with his album, Method Man was the clear favourite, with his sophomore album going platinum before the end of the year.
RZA’s album had a clear rugged, underground vibe, whereas Method Man shot for the stardom, landing features from non-Wu-Tang artists like Mobb Deep, members of Def Squad, Chris Rock, Janet Jackson, D’Angelo, and even a pre-presidential Donald Trump. The differing personalities between the Clan members would become even more clear as the wave of solo albums continued in 1999.
1999: The Swarm
Wu-Tang was in full swing again in 1999, releasing six solo albums, as well as the widely acclaimed collaborative album between Method Man & Redman, Blackout!. Besides Meth & Red becoming one of hip-hop’s all-time beloved duos, there was plenty of Wu-Tang to go around, as GZA and Raekwon released solid follow ups to their critically acclaimed ’95 classics, and Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck and U-God released some well-received debut albums. Of course, Ol’ Dirty Bastard would also release the gold-certified Nigga Please, which would end up being the last solo album he’d release during his lifetime.
There are too many stories and tidbits to get into with these 1999 albums. Inspectah Deck was known for spitting standout verses on previous Wu-Tang projects, but he had to become an accomplished producer as well for his debut album Uncontrolled Substance, which was tarnished due to a flood in RZA’s basement destroying most of the music he originally recorded over. While U-God’s Golden Arms Redemption is often overlooked by fans, his song “Rumble” would be the main theme for the Wu-Tang fighting video game released on Playstation that same year, Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. Besides Method Man & Redman, Ol’ Dirty Bastard had the most popular album, with production from The Neptunes combined with his quirky personality giving him mainstream appeal.
This wave of solo albums didn’t all quite get the same acclaim of the first wave, but it allowed fans to dig deeper into the personalities of all the individual group members.
2000: Quality Over Quantity
The second wave of Wu-Tang solo albums had the highest volume of releases, and it saw its end in February of 2000 with arguably the best of the batch: Ghostface Killah’s sophomore Supreme Clientele album. While other solo albums from this wave sounded a bit cluttered with plenty of outside producers and collaborators, Supreme Clientele still had RZA’s hand on its pulse, with most of the production either coming from or overseen by RZA himself, and minimal guest appearances from non-Wu-Tang members. Along with Method Man, Ghostface was now a clear standout star with what’s considered another classic album, and it set the Clan up well for another superhero team-up.
By November of 2000, the Wu-Tang Clan was reunited once more for their third group album, The W, going platinum again before the end of the year. RZA was back to handle most of the production, and this time the Clan had some high profile guest appearances from other rap stars like Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, and Nas. While it may not be a heralded classic like the previous albums, The W blended all the styles and flavours of the individual group members fans had gotten used to over the years. Method Man and Inspectah Deck were straight rhyming; Ghostface Killah brought the soulfulness he was now known for; Raekwon had his slick gangster vibe; U-God and Cappadonna brought that rugged, hardcore style, and GZA remained lyrically supreme. The singles off this album had some memorable music videos too, with the recurring theme of the group being stuck in a time-traveling elevator.
2001: Iron Flag
Unlike previous years, Wu-Tang didn’t have much of a wait until their next group album. Rather than putting out another full wave of solo albums, it was just RZA and Ghostface Killah making a splash with Digital Bullet and Bulletproof Wallets respectively, before rejoining the Clan for Iron Flag in December. RZA dug deeper into his Bobby Digital persona while continuing to evolve as a producer, and Ghostface Killah’s third album had a much stronger RnB and soul vibe than his previous work. Meanwhile, Method Man was just beginning his journey to becoming the accomplished actor he is today, co-starring with Redman in the cult classic How High.
Iron Flag was far less promoted than Wu-Tang’s previous releases, but still managed to earn a gold plaque. While Ol’ Dirty Bastard only appeared on one song on The W, he was noticeably absent from this album due to ongoing legal troubles. Cappadonna was also mostly absent, but the rest of the Clan held it down over the slightly more polished production. Some fans may argue that the beats didn’t all fit that original Wu-Tang sound, but Iron Flag still had some gems.
2002: Legend of the Liquid Sword
The years following Iron Flag would see a slightly less unified Wu-Tang Clan, but this didn’t mean the music would stop. All of the group’s members would be tied up in their own projects, and the first to ring in this new era would be GZA, who was once described as “the head” when Wu-Tang forms like Voltron. Unlike 1995’s Liquid Swords, GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword barely had any RZA production on it and only a few Wu-Tang guest features, but GZA stayed true to his style with a focus on ultra dense lyricism. Sticking to Wu-Tang’s roots and even naming the album after a kung-fu flick, the core fans dug it even though it wasn’t putting up the same numbers as previous releases.
Mainstream hip-hop was becoming more pop-influenced, moving away from lyrical swordsmen such as Wu-Tang and making room for trendy club rappers like 50 Cent and Nelly (although lyricists like Jay-Z, OutKast and Eminem were still prevailing). The underground is where MCs like Wu-Tang would thrive, and GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword would mark the beginning of that transition phase.
Part 3: Death & Rebirth
Wu-Tang would go through some turbulent times as they transitioned from chart-owning superstars to underground veterans. Hip-hop as a whole was a young genre of music, and it was rare to see its artists get old and still have a strong impact on mainstream music. This was also that era when mainstream hip-hop was becoming very questionable, to the point where a legend like Nas made an album called Hip Hop Is Dead. Wu-Tang were no longer putting up the big numbers, and had to find their footing as they continued to push on with new music.
2003: Ground Level
In terms of Wu-Tang releases, the summer of 2003 belonged to Inspectah Deck, who put out The Movement as his sophomore effort. It was much more up-tempo than the rugged, underground vibes of Uncontrolled Substance, and had zero input from the rest of the Clan. With the title track as the lead single, Deck can be heard rapping “this is ground level,” perfectly describing how he and Wu-Tang were no longer earning the platinum plaques of the mainstream, but also not exactly having an underground sound either.
The fall of 2003 would see RZA release his first album without the Bobby Digital persona, Birth of a Prince. RZA was also in a transition phase himself, as he was beginning his own Hollywood career by scoring Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill while also working on his first book, The Wu-tang Manual, along with his music. Closing out ’03 would be Raekwon’s often overlooked The Lex Diamond Story, which had zero RZA production but did feature some more Wu-Tang MCs on vocals. While these albums had their gems, they’re some of the least mentioned when talking about great Wu-Tang albums.
2004 saw Wu-Tang making attempts to adapt, both to the shifting music scene around them and personal issues. Similar to how GZA temporarily stopped using curse words for his 2002 album, Ghostface Killah dropped the Killah in his name to release The Pretty Toney Album by Ghostface (although the name change wouldn’t last long). It sounded very much “ground level,” featuring both party tunes and street anthems, and remains a solid piece of his large discogrpahy. Method Man would also return with Tical 0: The Prequel, collaborating with P. Diddy, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott and Ludacris over more poppy production in an attempt to appeal to the mainstream. Both albums had their gems, but they weren’t game changers like their earlier work.
The one member to bring back that original Wu-Tang flavour would be the often forgotten Masta Killa, who would finally release his debut album No Said Date more than ten years after we first heard him on 36 Chambers. His album brought the entire Clan together for guest appearances throughout, and was a welcome return to form after seeing the more popular Wu members get experimental on their albums. The Wu-Tang Clan would have more adapting to do though, as beloved member Ol’ Dirty Bastard would pass away from a drug overdose in November. His feature on Masta Killa’s “Old Man” would be the last music video he would appear in, and a documentary/concert film would be made out of the last show the entire Clan did together at the 2004 Rock The Bells Festival.
It would take nearly a year for any new music to come out of the Wu-Tang camp after ODB’s death. U-God would quietly release his sophomore album in September, Mr. Xcitement, which had no input or collaborations with any of his fellow Wu-Tang members, and ended up being a flop sales wise. Thankfully GZA would return to release the critically acclaimed Grandmasters, produced entirely by Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs and thematically revolving around the game of chess.
With just one producer and an overarching theme, Grandmasters saw GZA with a re-sharpened focus. Already known as one of hip-hop’s all-time great lyricists, GZA’s mind-bending wordplay was on full display. To this day, it may be as close as he’s gotten to topping his classic Liquid Swords album.
2006: The Third Wave
It took some time to regain their footing, but Wu-Tang was back with a full round of solo albums in 2006, and it felt like they were moving as a unit again. Ghostface Killah put the Killah back in his name and started the year off with what’s often considered his third classic album, Fishscale. The album featured every layer of his versatility as an artist, and contained the first song with all ten Wu-Tang members together since 1997’s “Triumph.” This one set Ghostface apart as arguably the most well-rounded MC in the group, as well as Wu-Tang’s best solo artist (still debatable). Fishscale was so well received by both fans and critics that Ghostface also closed out the year by releasing More Fish in December.
Between the two Ghostface Killah albums in ’06 were Inspectah Deck with an underground album/mixtape The Resident Patient, Masta Killa with his sophomore Made In Brooklyn, and Method Man’s fourth album, 4:21… The Day After. While Deck’s project was more of a placeholder until his next album, Masta Killa received more critical acclaim on his sophomore effort, and Method Man’s project was also praised for sounding more cohesive than his previous album. As with his first album, Masta Killa brought all living members of the Clan together again to make guest apperances on Made In Brooklyn, while Method Man’s 4:21 was the only album in this batch to feature some RZA production.
2007: 8 Diagrams
Wu-Tang would spend most of 2007 riding their last wave of solo albums while also spreading rumours of a new group album in the works. The rumours eventually came true in December, as the Clan reunited to release 8 Diagrams, just one week after Ghostface Killah would release his third solo album in a row without any RZA production, The Big Doe Rehab. RZA had been making his rounds in Hollywood over the past few years and came back to lace the Clan with some more cinematic production on 8 Diagrams; he would later use some of these songs in the score for his 2012 directorial debut, The Man With The Iron Fists. Conflict arose within the Clan though, as members like Raekwon and Ghostface became vocal about their displeasure in RZA’s production.
8 Diagrams was the first Wu-Tang album that failed to go gold, and it had fans divided. Some appreciated the experimentation, which included George Harrison’s son Dhani collaborating on an interpolation of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but many sided with Raekwon and Ghostface’s notion that Wu-Tang needed more rugged beats. Thankfully, this conflict would be played out artistically with more music over the next few years.
Part 4: From Conflict To Renaissance
With 8 Diagrams not exactly being the unified effort fans wanted to see, the Wu-Tang Clan would spend the next several years working on their individual projects before attempting to join forces again. As with most of their solo albums, they would still loosely collaborate together, and would come out with some of their more intriguing works as they reinvigorated themselves. Hip-hop along with Wu-Tang were aging, and it was (and still is) a new thing to see rappers get old and still make music. Both fans and artists didn’t know how to react, and this would cause conflict.
2008: Fame vs. Longevity
While Wu-Tang weren’t putting up the album sales that they used to, their ability to reach multiple generations was proven with their live shows, and how they toured off of albums released over a decade prior. One newer artist experiencing the inverse of this was 50 Cent, who was putting up huge sales numbers at the time and was mainly reaching teens and young adults. A conflict somehow arose between 50 and GZA, and for the first time ever, a Wu-Tang member made an all-out diss track. GZA lyrically slayed 50 Cent on the song “Paper Plate,” which was featured on his 2008 album Pro Tools, and mocked the way 50’s music was recyclable like most club rap.
GZA’s battle with 50 showed the disconnect between mainstream hip-hop and the competitive culture it was built on. The sense of sportsmanship was gone, as modern rappers were no longer competing to be the best rappers; 50 was winning at topping the charts with his club hits, and never responded to GZA’s battle rap on a lyrical level. Some fans would say it was weird for a veteran like GZA to try battling younger rappers, while underground heads praised the way he delivered a lyrical ass-whooping the way a skilled MC should be able to.
Rap beef aside, GZA’s Pro Tools was a solid album with fresh lyrical concepts, while RZA returned to his Bobby Digital persona with the album Digi Snacks. Both of these albums were met with moderate acclaim, but Wu-Tang’s lukewarm reception would soon heat up again.
2009: Year of the Sequels
The sequel album is a tough thing for any artist to pull off well, and Wu-Tang had a couple of them that were years in the making. Rumours had the fans buzzing for several years prior, but 2009 is when they would finally see Method Man & Redman reunite to release Blackout! 2, and Raekwon re-focus to carefully craft Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II. Sequel albums generally suffer from not being able to live up to the original, but Meth & Red made a solid, respectable effort, while Raekwon’s Cuban Linx Pt. II went on to be widely regarded as one of the greatest sequel albums of all time. Raekwon was able to gather many of his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members, including a couple beats by RZA, and craft a continuation of the mafia tale told on his 1995 classic, while Method Man & Redman delivered their combination of witty rhymes and party rap anthems fans had been missing.
Besides these critically acclaimed sequels were U-God and Ghostface Killah releasing their own solo albums. After flopping with his previous effort, U-God took a step in the right direction with Dopium, which had more input and collaboration from his Wu-Tang brethren, resulting in a few gems. Meanwhile, Ghostface Killah went completely left with his eighth solo album, Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. Often referring to it as his favourite album despite its lack of sales, Ghostface went for a major RnB vibe, collaborating with several singers like John Legend, Raheem DeVaughn, and Ne-Yo to make an album focused on sex and romance. While Ghostface had previously shown glimpses of this side of him blended with his hardcore and gangster songs, this is the first time he really focused on just one aspect of his game.
2009 ended up being an interesting year for Wu-Tang, who seemed unified again. Raekwon got the fans back on board with his sequel to Cuban Linx, Method Man satisfied a need by reuniting with Redman, and U-God redeemed himself with his new solo effort. Ghostface may have threw some fans off with his experimentation, but he was just beginning to go on a run of unique, standout projects that would appeal to different fans for different reasons.
With Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface being the most popular members of the group, the three of them decided to do a short, fun project together called Wu-Massacre. Clocking in at just half an hour over twelve tracks, it was a fun little snack that included gems like a sequel to the Cuban Linx track “Criminology,” and a rematch of “Meth vs. Chef,” which first appeared on Method Man’s Tical. Not to mention the cool artwork, with three different album covers all drawn by some of the same artists who work with Marvel Comics.
Along with the Wu-Massacre was Inspectah Deck releasing his third official album, Manifesto, which was reworked and rebranded after songs from his Resident Patient sequel were leaked. He delivered a solid underground effort with an underdog swagger, but seemed to still be in the shadow of his fellow Wu members. By December, Ghostface Killah would take the spotlight again with his ninth solo album, Apollo Kids, which would see him return to that rugged Wu-Tang sound (without any RZA production), and featured some rare collaborations with heavyweights like Busta Rhymes and Black Thought.
2011: Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
When the conflict over 2007’s 8 Diagrams first arose, Raekwon made notion of Wu-Tang recording another album without any RZA production, and even gave the hypothetical album a title: Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. While this Wu-Tang album never happened, Raekwon ended up using the title for his fifth solo album, which would be the only Wu-Tang release in 2011. Rae’s album would be very similar to Ghostface Killah’s recent Apollo Kids, in a sense that it featured zero RZA production, but had several other producers channeling and reinterpreting that Wu-Tang sound. It also had similarly rare collaborations, including veterans like Nas, Black Thought and Busta Rhymes, as well as younger artists like Lloyd Banks and Rick Ross to show that Wu-Tang isn’t against the newer generation after the GZA/50 Cent battle.
Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang had Raekwon and several of his fellow Clan members spitting over those martial arts-inspired beats and mafioso vibes that Wu-Tang fans have come to love over the years. Between Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s latest albums, it felt like the Wu were inspired again.
2012: Branching Out
While RZA was not really involved in the last few Wu-Tang releases, he was busy writing, directing, scoring and starring in his film The Man With The Iron Fists, which would hit theatres in 2012. He had spent time shadowing Quentin Tarantino and acting in minor roles before tackling his directorial debut, and of course it would come with a Wu-Tang flavoured soundtrack. With the movie being a kung-fu flick you’d expect RZA to make, the soundtrack was filled with that martial arts-inspired Wu-Tang sound, with all living members of the Clan making appearances alongside other artists like Kool G Rap, Freddie Gibbs, Pusha T, The Black Keys and Kanye West.
Also dropping in 2012 was a unique collaboration between Ghostface Killah and Sheek Louch, Wu-Block. Obviously a combination of Wu-Tang and D-Block, the album featured members of both groups throughout, while being carried by Ghost and Sheek. Both groups tend to delve occasionally into that hardcore gangsta rap, and that’s the type of vibe this album focused on. It was nothing we hadn’t seen Wu-Tang or D-Block do before, the only difference being they teamed up to make this kind of music together for a full length project.
Rounding out the experimentation of 2012 would be Masta Killa quietly dropping his third solo album in December, Selling My Soul, which barely had any guest features and had him rapping over soul samples. Between these three albums, it was clear that Wu-Tang were ready to branch out and try new things musically, without forcing anything that would alienate their core fans.
Part 5: The Saga Continues
In the most recent five years as of this writing, Wu-Tang seem to have found their zone. As respected veterans with a cemented legacy in hip-hop’s history pages, they’ve been able to get creative and make the music they want to make without any compromises. They’ve also found new (but maybe controversial) ways to innovate in the music industry. With many of the Clan members finding their niche as seasoned veterans, it’s truly been a renaissance for the Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game.
2013: Comic Book Heroes & Villains
Among chess, martial arts, and mafia flicks, comic books have also been a strong element in Wu-Tang’s style, and 2013 would see them embrace this side full on. Inspectah Deck would set things off in February by teaming up with Boston duo 7L & Esoteric to release their self-titled debut album, Czarface. The team up was aces across the board, as Esoteric has a similar reputation to Inspectah Deck, spending years spitting standout verses with his group Army of the Pharaohs, but not necessarily receiving the same recognition as a solo artist. Deck & Eso both seemed to have a new flame ignited for them on the mic, while 7L’s production blended both cartoony and hardcore, underground vibes.
Meanwhile, Ghostface Killah would elevate his reputation as one of hip-hop’s greatest storytellers with his tenth solo album, Twelve Reasons To Die. Produced entirely by Adrian Younge, the album sounded as if you were listening to a Broadway musical (a few years before Hamilton brought hip-hop flavour to that scene), with Ghostface and select Wu-Tang cast members telling the fictional tale of an actual ghost-faced killer vigilante. While the Broadway vibe may have thrown off some fans, an official remix album was made with Apollo Brown production, dubbed The Brown Tape, to give the songs more of a traditional hip-hop sound. The album would also be made into a comic book series for collectors.
Also dropping in 2013 was U-God’s fourth solo album, Keynote Speaker, which stuck to that rugged, hardcore vibe he’s known for. While U-God albums in general haven’t made a huge impact, this may have been his most well put together project since 1999’s Golden Arms Redemption.
2014: The Million Dollar Album
Just as they entered the music industry with an innovative, never before seen business deal in 1993, Wu-Tang came up with a new, potentially once in a lifetime deal just over twenty years later. Over the years, the Wu-Tang Clan had secretly recorded another double-disc group album with production from RZA’s protege Cilvaringz, entitled Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Rather than release the album to the public though, it was announced in 2014 that only one copy of the album existed, and it would be sold to the highest bidder in an auction. In an era where music is disposable and mostly available for free, RZA wanted to value his art the way one of a kind paintings are valued.
The plan seemed to work, as the one of a kind album was sold in 2015 for $2 million to pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli, who would later become infamous for raising the price of one of his drugs used to treat AIDS patients by 560%. He would later be convicted of fraud, and eventually re-sold the Wu-Tang album in 2017 on eBay for over $1 million. To this day, fans have only been able to hear snippets of the million dollar album (legal stipulations prevent it from being leaked), but Wu-Tang did reunite in 2014 to deliver a brand new album named after one of their 1997 songs, A Better Tomorrow. The album was met with mixed reviews, as RZA now had a composer’s approach to production as opposed to a DJ’s approach, leading to more experimentation with the sound, although he did also deliver a bit of that classic, gritty Wu-Tang vibe.
While a more mature and artistic Wu-Tang Clan is something the fans aren’t used to seeing, A Better Tomorrow was a decent project, even though it had the Clan members in conflict over the production again. On the solo side, Ghostface Killah would begin an epic run of releasing three albums within a span of eight months, starting in December of 2014 with 36 Seasons. Staying within the storyteller niche he found on Twelve Reasons To Die, Ghostface’s new project was produced by The Revelations, and had him telling a 1970’s gangster tale with New York legends Kool G Rap, AZ and Pharaohe Monch co-starring in key roles.
2015: A New Wave
Ghostface Killah would continue his run of short, concept-focused solo albums with single producers, releasing Sour Soul with Canadian jazz band BadBadNotGood in February, and Twelve Reasons To Die II with Adrian Younge in July. These albums put Ghostface at the forefront of the Clan as its definitive best solo artist, showcasing his ability to adapt and focus in on a concept for an entire album, and also build on his already ridiculous longevity as an ever evolving artist. Also working with a single producer would be Inspectah Deck, who would return with his group Czarface to put out one of the best underground hip-hop releases of the year, Every Hero Needs A Villain. 7L built on the comic book vibe they established on the first album, and Deck & Esoteric slayed the beats with a vengeance, while recruiting some underground royalty to make guest appearances.
While Ghost and Deck both struck while the iron was hot with their current approaches to music, Raekwon and Method Man would each try different things. Raekwon would go for a more mainstream vibe with his sixth album Fly International Luxurious Art, attempting to appeal to a broader audience and cllaborating with younger artists like French Montana, A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz and Rick Ross. Method Man on the other hand had been busy developing his acting career, and focused his first solo album since 2006 on collaborating with underground artists from his hometown Staten Island. With a heavy underground vibe and inclusion of some Wu members along with Shaolin’s finest, Method Man’s The Meth Lab turned out to be an overlooked, underrated project.
2016: Alternative Groupings
Aside from high profile controversy and beef, 2016 would be a relatively quiet year for Wu-Tang in terms of album releases. Martin Shkreli was bringing negative attention to the Clan with his unethical business moves, and Ghostface Killah had a short lived conflict with rapper Action Bronson, which resulted in some hilarious internet videos. In terms of music, there would be a couple side projects, the first of which would see RZA team up with rock band Interpol’s lead singer Paul Banks to release Anything But Words as Banks & Steelz. It was an awesome blend of punk and rap that saw a newly inspired RZA sounding like he was genuinely having fun in the studio, as opposed to being pressured to live up to Wu-Tang’s larger than life reputation. Anything But Words may even be RZA’s best side project outside of the Wu-Tang Clan albums, besides maybe 1998’s Bobby Digital In Stereo.
The second Wu-Tang side project of 2016 would be Inspectah Deck returning for a third album with Czarface. While Czarface started out as a group heavily inspired by comic books, they were now literally working with Marvel Comics, creating music to promote characters like Black Panther, which would be featured on the album A Fistful Of Peril. While the project may not have been as grandiose and star-studded as the previous year’s Every Hero Needs A Villain, it saw 7L completely dive into that cartoony, comic book vibe for the entire album, and Inspectah Deck & Esoteric carry the vocals with minimal guest features. By now it should be safe to say that Inspectah Deck’s work with Czarface is easily his best work outside of the Wu-Tang Clan albums.
2017: The Saga Continues
This year has been one full of surprises for Wu-Tang fans. Raekwon would return with a new sound on his seventh solo album, The Wild, and Masta Killa would finally drop the album he’s been mentioning for almost a decade, Loyalty Is Royalty. While Masta Killa pretty much stayed in his lane and put together his best project since the mid-2000’s, Raekwon’s The Wild saw him freely slaying some hard-hitting beats with new flows and lyrical concepts you’d expect from other Wu members like GZA or Method Man. The albums also contrast in a sense that Raekwon has zero Wu-Tang affiliates on his album, while Masta Killa’s album is heavy with guest features, including Method Man & Redman, GZA & Inspectah Deck, and posthumous verses from the late Sean Price and Prodigy.
The big surprise came just a month ago in October, when Wu-Tang seemingly reunited out of nowhere to release the new group album The Saga Continues. With a resume that includes designing the now iconic Wu-Tang logo, being the group’s tour DJ for years, and a solid list of production credits, DJ Mathematics could now add producing an entire Wu-Tang album to his accomplishments. He effectively recaptured that Wu-Tang sound fans have been waiting to hear on a group album, although the entire Clan wasn’t fully unified for the project. U-God was completely absent from the album (currently suing RZA for unpaid royalties), and appearances from other Clan members were sparse compared to Method Man, who carried the album with some of the best rap verses of the year and featured on six songs. The album was also heavy on guest appearances from non Wu-Tang members, including close affiliates like Redman, Streetlife, and Killah Priest.
25 Years & Beyond
For 25 years strong, the Wu-Tang Clan has showed no signs of slowing down. They’ve all seemed to find their niche as individual artists in recent years, and it’s only right that they cap off their 25th year with a group effort, returning to their signature sound and setting things up for another wave of solo albums.
Ghostface Killah has evolved his artistry, showing ultra focus on the cohesiveness in his recent projects and adapting to any kind of sound. The next projects he’s rumoured to be working on include a sequel to 2000’s Supreme Clientele, and a long awaited collaborative album with underground legend MF DOOM.
Method Man has been more involved in his acting career, currently co-starring in HBO’s The Deuce, but musically has shown a knack for just slaying individual verses. He plans to do just that as he prepares The Meth Lab II, and if him and Redman are to keep up their pattern of dropping another Blackout! album every ten years, they’re due for a third one in 2019.
GZA hasn’t dropped a new solo project in almost a decade, but he’s made his intentions known in recent years. Always looking to push hip-hop to new places lyrically, he’s been involved in NASA’s research, visiting universities around the world, and is looking to have a science-driven theme to his next album, Dark Matter.
Looking ahead, the rest of the Clan remains unpredictable. With his hand in rapping, producing, acting, scoring and directing, there’s no telling what projects RZA will get involved in next. Inspectah Deck has a great thing going with Czarface, and there’s lots of potential for him to keep pushing that brand. With the remaining members Raekwon, Masta Killa, U-God and Cappadonna always cooking up new music, there doesn’t look to be an end in sight for the Wu-Tang Clan.
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