(Today I'm running another one of those dual perspectives on a single album, except this time around I'm one of the participants. A.R. Marks and I both decided to tackle Raekwon's Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang at the same time, so even though we didn't actually collaborate on this post, it has been edited together to appear as though we were at least on the same planet while writing. Think of it as the blogger equivalent of having someone e-mail you a guest verse that your producer has to work into the overall song somehow. As always, I will appear in italics, but they're just be more of me this go-round. Leave some messages for us below.)
It's hardly unheard of for a rapper, fresh off a critically lauded and (relatively) commercially successful project, to rest on his laurels and release an album full of filler and throwaway tracks. But, every once in a while, an MC will go the Raekwon route. After 2009's unexpected winner Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II, Shallah Raekwon made a serious effort not to squander the goodwill, newly regained after two extremely poor solo efforts. He ramped up his visibility and output near around 1000%, making high-profile appearances with The Black Keys (on Blakroc), Curren$y, Justin Bieber (of all people), and Kanye West, among others. Additionally, he put out another album with fellow Wu-Gambinos Ghostface Killah and Method Man (the (admittedly pretty disappointing) Wu-Massacre), announced a collaboration album with Kool G Rap (which may never actually happen), and teased that a third installment of what is now the Cuban Linx series will eventually happen, although its release date is undetermined.
Until then, Rae decided to do his best to a) keep his fans and b) convince us that his new addiction is fulfilling all of his big plans, so here we are with his fifth solo effort, Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, with its badass album cover art (and goofy liner notes) and a list of stylistically close-knit guest appearances.
(Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang started off life as an actual Wu-Tang Clan project, Raekwon's response to his lack of interest in The RZA's production work on the last group effort, 8 Diagrams: it was threatened that Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang would become a crew album that excluded Prince Rakeem from the proceedings entirely, as the Chef felt that the beats on 8 Diagrams weren't what Wu stans actually wanted to hear. (I disagree: 8 Diagrams is criminally underrated, but whatever.) This makes sense, as Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang does sound like a perfect title for a Wu-Tang Clan album where the hook was that the remaining seven members of the Clan would spit over non-RZA beats. Perhaps sensing that there were absolutely zero Wu stans that actually wanted to hear that kind of shit, Raekwon decided instead to appropriate the title for his own solo project, explaining to anybody who would listen that the album was an internal struggle between his Wu-Tang side and his original Shaolin lifestyle, as he was a resident of Staten Island (or Shaolin) before The RZA scooped him up for the Wu.
Raekwon hasn't forgotten the original genesis of this project, though: he went out of his way to secure beats that he felt would double as fan service: dusty drums and kung-fu flick samples over melodic instrumentals, accompanied with the criminology-style rhymes of our host. Also, The RZA is still nowhere to be found. The Chef claims that RZA wouldn't have wanted to appear on a project that appears to take the WU's name in vain anyway, but in reality, RZA is currently in China filming a movie, so he probably wasn't available for even the least bit of guidance: the Clan even toured this past winter without Prince Rakeem. But apparently it's all love, as Raekwon is now open to working with The Abbott again, so I guess there's always Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt, III.)
So let's take the plunge and explore how Raekwon envisions the struggle between Wu-Tang and his native Shaolin.
1. SHAOLIN VS. WU-TANG
A.R. MARKS: I give Rae credit for skipping an intro and kicking off with the title track. The kung-fu sample at the very beginning sets up the conflict between the Shaolin and the smaller, more specialized group of Wu-Tang, but the Scram Jones beat that it leads into leaves so much to be desired, such as a melody that doesn't sound like the score from Psycho looped into infinity. Rae shows some lyrical enthusiasm, but it's impossible to concentrate on his words over the wreckage of this beat, so let us skip ahead.
MAX: The kung-fu flick sound bite used to open the album takes on an entirely different meaning when you remember why The RZA isn't involved with this project. So there's that. Scram Jones does a credible imitation of a Wu-Element, his powerful instrumental introducing the album nicely, but Raekwon's two verses sound less engaging, as though he was picking random phrases out of a hat, Thom Yorke-style. At least he doesn't sound as though he's about to fall asleep behind the wheel, though, so that's a plus. Given the title of the song, I'm left wishing that this was one of those Wu-Tang posse cuts that the crew used to be so fond of doing: all it needs is the addition of the word “chamber” and it would be on.
2. EVERY SOLDIER IN THE HOOD (FEAT. METHOD MAN)
A: With such a clumsy title, it doesn't surprise me much that Erick Sermon's beat feels equally awkward and underdeveloped. With heavy synths and a bare-minimum backdrop of chanting and string-plucking, it makes a play for a “House of Flying Daggers” atmosphere, but comes across as plodding instead. Still, it is listenable at the very least, and it provides Meth and Rae with a nice mutually-fitting sonic platform. Even this early on, it's clear that Rae's breath control has gotten much better; along with his newly-discovered use of punch-ins, he sounds like he's reverse-aged seven years in the last two. Nicely done.
M: Upon first listen, this sounds nothing like what you would expect an Erick Sermon beat to be: playing through it a second time, I noticed the typical Sermon-esque flourishes hidden just underneath the surface distractions. Not his best work by a long shot: I guess I still stand by my recent statement that E-Double should just retire already. But both the Chef and (especially) Method Man sound rejuvenated, each delivering a single verse and expanding their overall reach accordingly. The chorus is too wordy for it to be catchy, but I'm willing to look past that if you two are.
3. SILVER RINGS (FEAT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
A: I appreciate that Rae included freshman Wu-Element Cilvaringz on the album; the title of the track is even a shout-out to the producer. Returning the favor, Ringz cooks up a pretty nice Shaolin-style instrumental, replete with Kung-Fu samples and a short Ol' Dirty vocal. It's still a bit slow, but the strings pick up some momentum when Ghost jumps on it; it also bleeds perfectly (if abruptly) into the next track.
M: Producer Cilvaringz lands a spot on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, lending musical accompaniment to the rantings of the Chef and his partner in crime Ghostface Killah, and every element sounds as though it could have fit seamlessly on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II. Rae mentions that the third chapter in his Cuban Linx saga is coming, but there's absolutely no timetable, so you should just shut the fuck up about it already, and Ghost uses the catchy beat to, um, catch wreck, sounding just as good as he did on the surprisingly entertaining Apollo Kids. For his part, Cilva even found a way to include the late Ol' Dirty Bastard in the mix, using a vocal sample from “As High As Wu-Tang Get”. Not bad at all.
4. CHOP CHOP NINJA (FEAT. INSPECTAH DECK & ESTELE)
A: It seems as though thinking up all those Wu-related titles might be taking a turn for the tedious in the Chef's case, but that aside, this track is pretty damn good, continuing the album's upward curve. It opens with an acapella of Estelle's beautifully-sung chorus, and while the beat consists almost exclusively of kung-fu samples, drums, and a very, very low string backing, Rae and (especially) Deck wreck the fuck out of this track, making me think Deck should ask Rae to executive-produce his next project, Capone-N-Noreaga style.
M: Holy fucking shit, is that really the title Raekwon decided to run with? That's fucking hilarious! But the rest of the track isn't played for laughs, and the song suffers for it. The Bluerocks beat (when it eventually kicks in) sounds disjointed and overdoses on the kung-fu flick samples, and Estelle's singing makes absolutely zero sense within the context of this song: she sounds technically proficient, but wasn't necessary in the least bit. So with the musical element faltering, the song fails as a whole, but Inspectah Deck sounded alright, and I enjoyed Raekwon's first verse, describing a battle he's currently having with a fucking ninja (no, seriously), one where he's getting his ass handed to him. So that was nice.
5. BUTTER KNIVES
A: This song leaked a while back, but it sounds even better within the context of the album. It's a noir masterpiece, somewhat akin to Inspectah Deck's “A Lil Story”, if a bit more claustrophobic, and quite visual, thanks to the switch-ups and kung-fu samples inherent. Rae's tale is a trademark first-person narrative that recalls some of his best lyrical work, both in wordplay and delivery, from the 1990's. A-plus.
M: Bronze Nazareth's instrumental is fucking dope in an old-school Wu-Tang way, and the Chef comes out to play, delivering a performance that rivals his early work easily. Also, he actually interacts with the kung-fu flick sample on more than one occasion: how fucking golden is that? This early teaser single gave me high hopes for Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, so I have to give credit to both Bronzey and Raekwon for delivering a hot song. (I guess I also have to share the blame between the two of them, as well, since the project isn't working for me as well as I had hoped, although this is by no means a Wu-Massacre situation.) The only way that this shit could have been any better is if Rae remixed it with his Wu brethren. That was a hint, by the way.
6. SNAKE POND
A: Here comes an unexpected, but highly welcome, change in the sound of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang. Newcomer Selasi's instrumental is exceptional, with its highly hypnotic use of eastern flutes and vocal samples. It's a bit short at two-and-a-half minutes, with Rae spitting straight through, lacing us with another crime story, this one more linear and explanatory. Five thumbs up.
M: Although the fan service of including kung-fu flick samples continues, it's limited only to the intro of this track, which signals an overall shift in our host's focus, as “Snake Pond” is a coldhearted crime tale from one of the masters of the sub-genre. Selasi's instrumental lends a surreal vibe to the Chef's narrative, while still managing to make heads nod, which is a hard feat to master. Raekwon's storytelling abilities appear to have only improved with age: even though he kind of trails off at the very end, the rest of the tale is so good that you won't give much of a fuck about such a minor misstep.
7. CRANE STYLE (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
A: Once again, the songs transition effortlessly, keeping things smooth and tightly-knit. This song's even shorter at two minutes, but it continues on the organic Far East-trend established with “Snake Pond,” so these two could be considered a suite. In high contrast to his first contribution, Scram Jones comes back through to provide what sounds like his own take on the previous track. Busta rips the living fuck out of the song, too.
M: Although the title suggests otherwise, this track is also more up a solo Raekwon's alley. Busta Rhymes continues to use his guest vocals as social currency, racking up favors by allowing his friends in the industry to tack on his cameo appearances: I predict that his next solo album, whenever the hell that shit drops, will feature a metric ton of guest spots, at least two of them coming from Raekwon himself. Even though the track itself doesn't fit on the Wu-Tang portion of Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, the instrumental, oddly, does sound like something The RZA could have whipped up during his “Let My N----z Live” days. Raekwon sounds alright, and Busta pulls that old trick where he calms the fuck down, forcing you to pay attention, and as a result, this short song (clocking in at less that two minutes!) isn't bad at all, even though the Chef is upstaged a bit by his invited guest.
8. ROCK N ROLL (FEAT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH, JIM JONES, & KOBE)
A: Switching back to what is clearly the Shaolin side (drum-heavy, melody-light synth concoctions), Rae plays host to Ghostface and Jim Jones over a highly contemporary-sounding track provided by the lukewarm DJ Khalil. This joint, however, feels nice within the context of the album, if not utter flames in itself. As expected, Jimmy fails to quite live up too his cohorts, although he kicks a listenable verse at least.
M: Um, what the mother fuck? “Rock N Roll” sounds like a Raekwon bid for mainstream acceptance, as DJ Khalil's beat is idiosyncratic enough for the general hip hop audience to proclaim its brilliance (because it's so “different”) even though everything about it sounds artificial. Vocalist Kobe, who is credited in the liner notes but apparently isn't welcome in Back Cover Land, should never be allowed to sing a chorus on a Wu-Tang song ever again, especially one that uses the names “Bon Jovi” and “Mick Jagger” as euphemisms for drugs. (You had best believe that Raekwon is kicking himself right now: if only he had the foresight to refer to the illicit substance as “Charlie Sheen”, he would look like a fucking prophet right now.) Rae and Ghost, tag team extraordinaire, sound okay enough, despite Khalil's best efforts, but the song dies a slow and painful death once Jim Jones takes to the mic. I'm kidding: the track was dead on arrival once it was first announced that Jimmy would be drinking his Kool-Aid on here. Although he does refer to cocaine at one point as “Sheila E.”, which was kind of funny, I have to admit.
9. RICH AND BLACK (FEAT. NAS)
A: The differing sonic styles of the album come together most fully on this track, the Grind Music team (that's Sean C. & LV, late of Diddy's brief reiteration of The Hitmen) lighting up a beat that flawlessly recalls the violin-driven, Trackmasters-esque sound of the mid-to-late 90's, when shit like Ruff Ryders and Big Pun would actually play in clubs. Nas, providing a make-up appearance for missing his date on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II, proves he retains his undeniable chemistry with Shallah, and the pair flow back and forth nicely. There follows an interlude that brings us back to the Shaolin/Wu conflict, and we're off again.
M: Nasir Jones wasn't able to contribute a promised guest verse to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II due to his divorce proceedings (an excuse I never really bought, but whatever), but after realizing that his fans actually wanted to hear them on a follow-up to their classic “Verbal Intercourse”, he finally relented. Unfortunately, this shit was not worth the wait. Both artists sound polished enough, and the beat wasn't terrible, but the two elements don't blend well together. I found myself more fascinated by the short interlude at the end of the track than I was for the entirety of the song. By the way, both Nas and Ghostface Killah are signed to Def Jam Records: why in the fuck haven't they ever worked together? I'm going to start the rumor now: Ghostface Killah fucked Nasir's baby's mother in the backseat of his car.
10. FROM THE HILLS (FEAT. METHOD MAN & RAHEEM DEVAUGHN)
A: A triumphant horn-driven beat keeps us squarely in Wu-Tang territory, as Raheem sings his hook about the hills of the Wu-Tang, so we can assume the triumph as Raekwon describes his ascension from the old antics to a new life. Method drops in with a verse that's much more engaging than his last one, so this one's a winner all around.
M: I had no problem with Raheem DeVaughn appearing on Ghostface Killah's R&B album, because he actually fit in with what Pretty Toney was trying to do. Not so much on here: the guest crooner sounds out of place, singing his heart out with no real payoff. Not that removing his vocals would have helped much anyway: both Raekwon and a returning Method Man sound bored as shit over this plodding Kenny Dope instrumental. But still, I'm sure he's still sitting around wondering just how in the fuck he ended up on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang in the first place.
11. LAST TRIP TO SCOTLAND (FEAT. LLOYD BANKS)
M: When Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang's tracklisting was revealed, I found myself dreading three specific guest appearances: Jim Jones, Rick Ross, and G-Unit's Lloyd Banks. Jimmy was as awful as I had anticipated, and I haven't yet gotten to Richard's contribution, but it turns out that Banks has actually stepped his game up a tad bit. He doesn't sound all that great, but he's decent when paired with Raekwon's visceral crime storytelling. (Scram Jones's beat goes a long way toward helping this track work.) I did find it funny that Banks refers to someone as “Shorty Shit Stain”, though, since that's the rap name of one of Ol' Dirty Bastard's weed carriers.
A: Returning the favor for the excellent song “Die One Day,” off of the most recent Banks effort, the G-Unit member follow's Rae's characteristically vivid verse with a similarly skilled offering, proving that these two gravel-voiced MCs share a chemistry akin to Rae's connection with Prodigy and Nas of old. The beat is pleasant and exhibits tension, if not a whole lot in the way of development, holding the door open for Rae and Lloyd's verses and then politely exiting the building...
12. FERRY BOAT KILLAZ
A: ...to make way for a much more ostentatious, attention-whoring but substance-lacking beat (unfortunately provided by The Alchemist) that insists you listen to its monotonous jabbering in such a shrill manner that you desperately seek a way out, which is helpfully provided by the skip button.
M: I found this shit to be boring as fuck, but that's to be expected when you're dealing with a producer as hit-or-miss as The Alchemist: his work on “Ferry Boat Killaz” sounded like it should be incidental music for a Gymkata knockoff. Chef Raekwon sounds fatigued for the very first time on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang: it's almost as though this song was recorded during what was supposed to be his nap time. The best thing about this song is its title, which sounds like it should share a name with a paperback pulp crime novel. But the song sucked otherwise.
13. DART SCHOOL
A: This is what we're talking about. Mathematics' horn-and-harp-driven concoction paves a yellow brick road that Raekwon subsequently shreds, stone by stone, with his spirited vocals.
M: The song title on here was promising as well, but the track doesn't deliver the goods: Allah Math's instrumental is a mismatch for Raekwon's crime-tinted tales, and the marriage is annulled fairly quickly. I'm not sure why the Chef is taking it upon himself to carry the Wu-Tang load, but that motherfucker really needs to relent and ask his friends for some help: this is another one of those tracks that might have worked better had everyone been throwing their darts around.
14. MOLASSES (FEAT. RICK ROSS & GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
A: Rick Ross? Rick Ross? Rick Ross? The recently de-incarcerated former drug dealer? Nope, the rapper, who jumps into the ingratiatingly simple horn-laced sonic proceedings after Raekwon licks off his first verse, and sounds surprisingly pretty dang good doing it. The Chef obviously felt the need to keep control of the track here, as he kicks an additional verse after each one of his guests are finished.
M: Raekwon has struck up a friendship with former corrections officer Rick Ross, so, unfortunately, I say this collaboration coming. And Ross sounds just as bad on a Wu-Tang album as you would suspect: the poor guy sounds like he's so out of breath, he records each of his bars individually. However, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah also have zero chemistry on here: it's painfully obvious that they wrote and recorded their verses completely independent of each other. Which is too bad, as the Xtreme Beats instrumental is a throwback to the Wu-Element sound of yore. Oh well.
15. THE SCROLL
A: Surprisingly produced by Dilated Peoples' Evidence (who does some pretty decent beats, and thankfully fails to add his own vocals here), the beat—a low, hypnotic affair that recalls early Organized Noize work—builds and develops in perfect unison with the growing tension in Rae's verse. The result is a new direction for the Chef, one which surprisingly turns out very well indeed—and makes me wonder how Raekwon would fit over more Dungeon Family production (not counting his existing work with OutKast/Big Boi).
M: First off, that title is awesome. It has fuck-all to do with the song, but it sounds epic. And Evidence's slow build of a built is fucking brilliant: for best results, you should listen to it with noise-canceling headphones and let your mind wander. (As I am absolutely not a fan of Dilated Peoples, I'm just as surprised as you are.) And it's nice to know that there is no possible way that our host could use the phrase “nighttime vultures” on the chorus without thinking of his contribution to Mobb Deep's classic song of the same name. However, Rae's lyrics just didn't do it for me on here: his story sounded stale, and it didn't keep my interest. Of course, it doesn't help that I was so distracted by the music. An instrumental would be appreciated (hint, hint).
16. MASTERS OF OUR FATES (FEAT. BLACK THOUGHT)
M: Black Thought (of The Roots) continues his world tour, leading up to his inevitable solo debut, by guesting on here after having done a similar favor for Ghostface Killah. And just like it did on Apollo Kids, the beat fails him on here: Thought sounds fucking amazing over hard instrumentals, so I don't understand why Raekwon decided to restrain him by selecting the end music to a fictional 1970s melodrama. Tariq gets off a few good bars, but the odds were stacked against him from the start. This was disappointing.
A: The last real track on the album begets the much-anticipated collaboration between Rae and Black Thought. At times, the soft string background comes across as a less robust reworking of the ending theme to the Star Wars series. Over the beat by newcomer Tommy Nova, Rae and Thought mesh beautifully with respective tales of overcoming hardships set out for them. A fitting and compelling way to end the album, not counting...
17. WU CHANT (OUTRO)
A: ...the album intro that Raekwon cut from the beginning, only to sneak it in on us here at the end! You crafty bastard!
M: Producer Nova redeems himself for that “Masters Of Our Fate” shit by sampling Ennio Morricone's fantastic “The Ecstasy Of Gold” during this otherwise unnecessary rap album intro. In all fairness, though, hearing people shout “Wu-Tang!” takes me all the way back to 1993, which was the overall point, so I'll let it go.
(The iTunes version of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang contains two additional bonus tracks, which I am going to attack solo.)
18. WU CRIME (FEAT. GZA/GENIUS & KILLAH PRIEST)
It's curious that a song that panders so greatly to the Wu stans would be left to die as an iTunes exclusive (unless you're a marketing executive, of course). While I would love to tell you two that “Wu Crime” is worth its weight in honey-dipped blunts, it's merely alright. All three artists, who clearly represent the Wu-Tang side of the album title, weave their respective tales over BT's Shaolin-esque instrumental, and while Raekwon sounds okay enough and The Genius does as well as he always does, the true star of this track is Killah Priest, who has been on a comeback tour of late, with a guest appearance on Apollo Kids and now this: his contribution reminded me of his verse on Ol' Dirty Bastard's modern classic “Snakes” in that it just sounded fucking good. I'm still left feeling that the Chef dropped the ball on this song, though; it should have been so much more.
19. YOUR WORLD & MY WORLD (FEAT. HAVOC)
Mobb Deep's Havoc ends the digital version of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang with a non-Havocy instrumental, which Raekwon attempts to dismantle (and mildly succeeding at that). It sounded engaging enough while it was playing, and I found it kind of funny that Raekwon felt it was appropriate to announce the beginning of Hav's ending verse with yet another kung-fu flick sample, but the guest star, who must be fucking thrilled that Prodigy has come home, caps off the evening with a disappointing contribution. This song was left off of the regular retail version for a reason.
THE LAST WORD:
A: In a nutshell, this album is less ambitious than its predecessor, although that in no way lends itself to criticism of its quality; it's merely more focused, as Rae obviously felt he had doffed the expectations placed on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II for perfection and could settle in to his new groove, while exploring his own chamber within the Wu-Tang sound. Even further, it represents his struggle to take control of his career in the late 1990's and the early part of the millennium, when he tried to step away from The RZA's production and out on his own, to the displeasure of his fans. With Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, Rae puts an end to the saga of disagreement between himself and the Abbott: he announced the album and its concept as a potential Wu-Tang group album after his public disagreement with RZA over the latter's production, but now that it has come to fruition, he shows a marked lack of interest in those conflicts, choosing instead to look forward with compelling results. RZA neither appears nor is mentioned anywhere on the album (not even as a shout-out in the liner notes, but you know who does get thanked? Motherfucking Justin Bieber. I'm not joking), and its cohesion and continually engaging sound is Raekwon's show-and-prove statement that, true to his own sentiment, he truly has become the master of his fate.
M: Although it starts off strong with its close attention to fan service, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang falls apart by the halfway point, as it becomes yet another Raekwon solo album fulled with crime narratives. This wouldn't be a terrible development if the production was up to par: with few exceptions (most notably “The Scroll”, the music is a sonic mismatch for the content, and Chef Raekwon isn't awake enough to consciously build upon the sharp contrast. For an album entitled Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, the needle points to the WU-Tang side of the scale only a handful of times, rendering the titular conflict a loss by default, as Raekwon chose his side before the recording sessions even began. Rae doesn't fully shed his Wu skin on here, but he doesn't embrace it either: he seems to believe that the mere act of throwing in sound bites from kung-fu flicks will appease the audience just enough to convince them to accept everything else he does on here. He's almost correct, but almost nothing Raekwon can do, short of washing my car and writing me a blank check, will ever make me feel okay with the presence of both Rick Ross and motherfucking Jim Jones on a Wu-Tang solo album. So Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is a misfire, but an interesting one, as it is still worth listening to at least the first half. It skews more toward The Lex Diamonds Story than Immobilarity, so that was nice, but as his follow-up to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II, Raekwon falls short. Groan.
-A.R. Marks & Max
(Questions? Comments? Did you find the format of this post confusing? Leave your notes in the comments below.)