A Wu-Tang Album in Name Only — The Deception of “The Saga Continues”
If a (supposedly) new Wu-Tang Clan album doesn’t move the needle the way it once did, it’s largely because it’s easy to be skeptical about new material coming out of Shaolin.
Not since 2001’s Iron Flag has it seemed like everyone in the group was on the same page and you’d have to go back another year, to 2000’s The W, to find a Wu-Tang album that pleased both the majority of critics and fans.
While they have no problem forming like Voltron to tour and perform their classics, there’s been internal strife for the better part of a decade. Ghostface Killah called their 2007 album 8 Diagrams “wack” and, at the same time, Raekwon referred to Wu-Tang founder and producer RZA as a “hip-hop hippie” because of his new age beats and increased focus on live instrumentation as opposed to samples with knocking beats. This disagreement continued in the run-up to 2014’s supposed swan song, A Better Tomorrow:
In early 2013, RZA began work on new Wu-Tang songs, doubling down on his organic approach to production: Instead of sampling old R&B songs, as he had on early Wu-Tang records, he would make his own vintage-flavored tracks from scratch. RZA worked in L.A. with producer and classic-funk guru Adrian Younge. He also headed to Royal Studios in Memphis, and hired some of the session men who played on the classic Al Green albums that had been recorded there. RZA, himself a proficient guitarist, often led the band through the changes himself.
The project was delayed because some members — specifically Raekwon — were hesitant to participate due to concerns surrounding both money and the music. The result was a lackluster project with only a few decent tracks.
So when it was announced out of nowhere that a new Wu-Tang Clan LP would be released on October 13, 2017 — Friday the 13th — it seemed curious. However, when RZA announced that it would be entirely produced by Mathematics, it actually made some more sense.
While each of the last two projects had some standout cuts — “Campfire” and “Weak Spot” off 8 Diagrams; “Necklace” and “Crushed Egos” off A Better Tomorrow — those were closer to the exception rather than the rule. Some, if not most, of the Clan had soured on RZA’s production in recent years and the idea of a group album with outside production had been around for several years, since Raekwon announced that he was going to spearhead a group album titled Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang with every Clansman, but excluding RZA beats, choosing to go with more traditional rap backdrops. (That album eventually became a Rae solo record, but RZA was still nowhere to be found.)
Besides, it’s not as if Mathematics were new to the circle. He is one of the strongest and closest branches off RZA’s production tree. A member of the Wu-Elements, his beats have appeared on solo discs for every living group member except U-God and he has provided instrumentals for the group as a whole on compilations and soundtracks — “America” off America Is Dying Slowly and “Shaolin Worldwide” off Next Friday, respectively — as well as three official Wu-Tang Clan albums — The W, Iron Flag, and 8 Diagrams. He crafted the Wu classics “Mighty Healthy,” “Wu-Banga 101,” “Fire Ina Hole,” and “Cobra Clutch.” He’s been around. In fact, he even created the original Clan logo.
Maybe this infusion of new blood would actually would be the renaissance we’ve all been hoping for.
Upon first seeing the tracklist, my initial question was, Why does it show ‘featuring’ members after each song? That doesn’t happen on official albums. You don’t feature yourself on your own album. Only guests are featured. But they are featured on compilations. This feels like a compilation. (Plus, they misspelled Killah Priest’s name.)
Spin, in a piece titled “What Exactly Is This New Wu-Tang Album?” tried to get to the bottom of it:
The Saga Continues…has not received wholehearted participation from the clique’s members. Despite appearing on the album, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Cappadonna, and Method Man haven’t acknowledged the album on social media, though the latter two are infrequent users. Masta Killa retweeted Mathematics’ self-promoting Instagram post, while Inspectah Deck and Raekwon have offered their congratulations on separate posts. However, when contacted by SPIN, Raekwon did not want to speak on his involvement with the album; Method Man said through a publicist that he wasn’t “involved enough to make a comment.”
Do you know why?
Because just like with that publicity stunt, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, most of them probably didn’t know they were contributing to an actual album that would be released as an official Clan album. Artists record songs and verses all the time without any thought or plan to where it will go or if it will be released at all.
The sprawling double disc forever changed my relationship to hip-hop and the worldmedium.com
The Saga Continues is collection of songs featuring most of the Clan on various tracks alongside outside guests. In that context — and thus, in reality — it’s no different than Wu-Tang Meets Indie Culture, Chamber Music, Legendary Weapons, or Wu-Tang Clan & Friends — Unreleased, the last of which also happened to be produced by Mathematics. You know what we call those albums? Say it with me: com·pi·la·tions.
The project is best compared to Chamber Music and Legendary Weapons, two albums with the Wu-Tang branding that featured much of the group as well as contributors from outside the family tree.
And that’s fine. I dig those albums. They’re not incredible, but they’re good. Yet the difference is those other albums were actually marketed and presented as compilations. The Saga Continues is being touted as an official Clan release, probably because it would garner more attention that way. RZA knows that and he also knows that many are skeptical. He’s been defensive about it for a month:
RZA is not above a cash grab — just ask Martin Shrekli — but even this feels a bit sketchy. He knows that a compilation doesn’t receive the same attention as an official release and used that to elevate this project, which he further oversold by calling it a “masterpiece.”
Also, there’s a bit of subterfuge with the naming of the album: despite RZA’s tweet, it’s billed as a Wu-Tang album, not a Wu-Tang Clan album. It’s a minor, but very important, distinction.
Anyway, enough of this palaver — let’s get into it.
What is this thing?
Of the eighteen tracks, seven are not full songs. Three are clips from outside the world of music; one is a Ghostface spoken interlude; and three are just diced-up sections of a single RZA track — one serves as the intro, one in the middle, and one as the outro. It is the same thing Jay-Z did with “Hova Song” on Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter (the middle interlude was on the original but replaced after the album was changed due to bootlegging). Another track lasts only ninety-two seconds and consists of a single Method Man verse (“Bars better than Willy Wonka’s/It’s how to get away with a murder — you feel me, Shonda?”) bracketed by a Redman hook.
The remaining ten songs are like a grab bag. Only six feature more than two MC’s and some are artists much of the public have never heard of, like Hue Hef, R-Mean, and Mzee Jones. Sean Price makes an appearance, as do longtime Clan affiliates Killah Priest and Streetlife while self-appointed eleventh Wu member Redman pops up three times.
As far as the actual members, U-God is nowhere to be found while GZA exits after one verse, Ghostface bails after a single verse and a couple of minor hooks, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck appear twice each, and Raekwon supplies two verses and a hook while, quizzically, a verse he supplied for The W is recycled. Along with RZA, the most visible Clansman is Method Man, who shows up six times, including a solo effort.
So how does The Saga Continues sound?
Well, it sounds like Chamber Music and Legendary Weapons — projects with songs featuring a few members with some really good cuts that do not sound cohesive and certainly are not greater than the sum of its parts.
“Lesson Learn’d” provides a strong start with vintage performances from Inspectah Deck and Redman (“These white folks love me like a Starbucks”) but is too short while “Fast and Furious” features a tough Raekwon storytelling verse but is dominated by Hue Hef and and thus feels like a Wu-affiliate track.
The late, great Sean Price brings his signature style to “Pearl Harbor” and Chris Rivers, son of the late, great Big Pun, announces his arrival to a wider audience with a scene-stealing appearance on “Frozen,” one of the LP’s best offerings.
In addition to his chopped-up track, RZA has a solo cut titled “Why Why Why” that devolves into didactic preaching but starts with a strong opening verse focused on current events:
Western civilization got me fighting for my civil rights/After fighting scores of war, we still fight for our civil rights/To be equal citizens with equal opportunity/Equal chance to advance and uplift our communities/But instead we getting shot in the head/Like a black man life ain’t worth a loaf of bread/”Stop or I shoot,” you stop, they still shoot/Buck, buck, buck! They stomp you out with steel boots
“If What You Say Is True” sounds like the old days, with Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Streetlife, and GZA tossing darts over a triumphant beat (although it does sound as if the GZA’s verse came from a different song). “People Say” is the track that feels most like an official Wu-Tang cut with Method Man, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, and Redman all spitting hard. That’s probably why it was the first song released with a video.
Yet, it was not the one that was performed on The Tonight Show. That was “My Only One,” a song for the ladies from RZA, Ghostface Killah, and Cappadonna with a hook from Steven Latorre. It is the only song on the LP with an actual verse from Ghost and while it’s a fine song with a great beat that includes what we’ve come to expect from Ghost (“chandelier around her neck”), it doesn’t reach the heights of other songs in the same vein like “Ice Cream,” “Camay,” or even “Cherchez LaGhost.”
Unlike in the early days when every member would be on stage even if only a few were performing, there was plenty of room on the stage.
From there, the album ends not with a bang, but more with a “Huh?”
The penultimate track is another spoken word interlude, this one by Professor Kaba Hiawatha Kamene about competing for the minds of young people before RZA closes the festivities. He was referencing comic books two decades ago, long before it became part of pop culture lexicon, so it’s not new territory for him, but following the previous track it’s a weird choice to end the disc with the lines “In front of Clark Kent, I fingerfuck Lois Lane/At the same time I pickpocket Bruce Wayne/I got his credit card, his ID, assets to his cave.” That’s where the track cuts off and the album ends.
For the most part, it’s all on point. The rhymes are potent and no one sounds lackadaisical on the mic while the production, generally, slaps. Mathematics uses the equipment and style that so many of us wish RZA still employed — the strings and harps have been traded in for good ol’ neck-snapping, head-nodding beats — but there’s just something missing that prevents the beats from rising from good to great.
And that’s the way the entire project feels. It’s good, but it feels cobbled together and, at times, incomplete.
While 8 Diagrams and A Better Tomorrow were plagued by problems, they still felt like a single, complete vision (even if that vision was sometimes hazy, misguided or marred by strife), nearly every song packed with multiple group members. The Saga Continues does not feel that way and no amount of interludes can tie it all together. It feels disjointed, like a collection of B-sides and, at times, even feels cut-and-pasted like a DJ blend of trying to match verses over different beats with RZA playing host.
Moreover, there’s just not enough to it. There’s only 47 minutes of actual music on the album — and that includes quite a bit of time for instrumentals — and that is not much for album in which seventeen people contribute.
This may not come close to Wu-Tang Forever, but nothing ever will. Still, words matter and when you announce that a new Wu-Tang album is coming, people get their hopes up. They want to feel the way they did the first time they heard Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers] or Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… or Liquid Swords. They want to know that a new Wu-Tang album is actually, you know, a Wu-Tang album and not a collection of songs that happen to feature various members of the group. Those two things are not the same.
RZA is right about one thing: he is the founder — the Abbott — of the Wu-Tang Clan and he can call it whatever he wants.
But fans can too and we and, I suspect, other members can see the truth and call it for what it is.