Caught in the reloop, Wu-Tang won’t be Forever

If you remember the RZA’s “little announcement” at the beginning of Wu-Tang Forever’s side B Intro, you will recall he railed against the “niggaz” trying to turn hip-hop into R&B (“rap and bullshit”) or “funk”.

Why would the all-knowing Ruler Zig Zag Zig Allah go against his own history? Hip-hop is the proud progeny of funk and all that came before it.

The RZA wasn’t suffering from cultural amnesia, he was merely talking about a way of doing things: the art of sampling music versus the dominant approach (at least in 1997) of “relooping” entire existing songs and taking them straight to the radio station.

The artist, then going as Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), wrote about this practice in 1998 in his adaptation of Slick Rick’s Children’s Story, found in the Black Star album he released with Talib Kweli. It was a time in hop-hop when battle lines (the underground vs radio-ready) were drawn and the Wu was engraving the boundaries with gleaming Shaolin swords.

When we listened to Wu-Tang Forever, little did we know we were witnessing the last great Wu-Tang record. The sprawling, 29-track oddity provided each member enough room to spit eye-opening “darts” and was the last album all members would unanimously revere. It came four years after their successful debut (Enter the 36 Chambers) and capped an impressive run of Wu-Tang solo projects, all helmed by the RZA.

Forever also contains the song from whence the album we are gathered about today draws its name. The song A Better Tomorrow was a public service announcement-like moment of reflection; the Wu graciously accepting their role model status.

We allowed it as fans because we knew that, deep down, when all the criminology raps for the older gods were done, Wu-Tang was for the babies.

The Wu-Tang Forever version of A Better Tomorrow classily samples a string line from American pianist Peter Nero’s A Time for Us (love theme from Romeo and Juliet). It is the work of 4th Disciple, one of RZA’s protégés. A Better Tomorrow, the title track of what is probably Wu-Tang’s last album, “reloops” entire slabs of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’s Wake Up Everybody.

If you can imagine Method Man, Masta Killa, Cappadonna as Teddy Pendergrass, then do your thing. But as for the darts, this is substandard Wu fare: I’m like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X with the heaters/ Ripping the chains off the remains of all of the leaders/ Never worship the image of evil swine eaters/ I’m on the back of the bus with two fine divas.

The intent is there; the finesse is gone. It doesn’t have the ring of: Black chocolate girl wonder, shake the ground like Thunder/ Politic till your deficit step, gimme your number – Cappadonna’s verse on the Wu classic Ice Cream.

You might wonder what else is there – little to tell ma and grandma about. In fact, you may want to let them get the record themselves. Wu-Tang’s Reunion gives the O’Jays’ Family Reunion the same Harold Melvin treatment. Relooping, RZA called it.

The obvious standouts here, production-wise, are by the protégés. Mathematics is credited with Keep Watch, one of the album’s earlier singles, a party song with that clipped, baggy-jeaned Wu-Tang swagger. Necklace, a psychedelic, hashish-lounge-evoking piece of aural cinema, is a slomo criminology and bling adventure. 

It’s produced by 4th Disciple. That’s not to say RZA has lost his magic touch. Tracks like Crushed Egos and Never Let Go are where his Stax Records aesthetic coalesces artfully; his compadres, on the other hand, rap begrudgingly like they’re doing each other one last favour.

Back in the day, Raekwon used to say Wu-Tang arguments were only ever about beats. These days, with tier systems and ruthless number crunching, we know they are about money and beats. To understand what may have happened here, we must revert to Malcolm X contemplating the Nation: “We had the greatest organisation the black man has ever built; ‘niggaz’ ruined it”. 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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