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Atomic Bombast: ‘Wu-Tang Forever’ and the Apex of the Most Monumental Rap Group of All Time

A quarter-century after its release, Wu-Tang’s nearly two-hour second album remains a testament to maximalism and all of the clan’s idiosyncrasies

Honeypower Studio

There’s something to be said for maximalism: nine rappers with a 10th in tow, a barrage of clips from movies you’d never heard of, the eagle piece and all those funny-ass rings. In the quarter century since the Wu-Tang Clan’s sophomore record came out, people have scoffed that GZA, early on a 27-song, nearly two-hour album, takes shots at the rappers with “weak rhymes that’s mad long / Make it brief, son: half short and twice strong.” But little on Wu-Tang Forever is drawn out for its own sake. Its best verses are tightly coiled crime vignettes or serpentine dispatches from rappers who “talk strange like Björk,” its beats odd and texturally incongruent as ever, its moral center as metamorphosed as the nine Picassos U-God claims to own. The double LP, despite being positioned as a blockbuster, retains all the idiosyncrasy that had made Wu-Tang one of the unlikeliest pop acts in the world. There’s simply far more of it.

The irony can be found, instead, in the album’s title. Wu-Tang Forever, which was released 25 years ago Friday, was the culmination of a five-year plan that RZA had purportedly laid out to his group mates back in 1993, one that he promised would make them a commercial behemoth without sacrificing their aesthetic principles or becoming unduly tied to any one record label. It worked better than anyone but the Abbot could have expected. Forever would open at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and eventually go quadruple platinum. It cemented Wu as that crassest of things, a global brand: There was a clothing line; soon there would be video games and FBI dossiers. But Forever signaled the end of something rather than predicting its endurance. To listen closely—to the songs themselves or to some of the principal members’ assessments of them—is to hear Wu’s grip loosen in real time.

The Clan’s debut, ’93’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), had knocked rap off its axis, providing a razor-fanged counterpoint to New York’s Native Tongues movement and the glossier G-funk pouring out of California. Even with its immediate acclaim—it got 4.5 mics in The Source—it seemed unlikely to spark the lucrative cottage industry that it almost immediately did. But RZA had banked on it. He brokered a deal with Steve Rifkind at Loud Records for only $60,000, but insisted that all nine members (he and GZA, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Masta Killa, U-God, and Inspectah Deck) be treated as free agents for the purposes of their solo careers. So when the first Wu splinter record—Meth’s Tical—rolled out the following year, it was not as an afterthought at Loud, but as a major priority at Def Jam.

That flexibility was key, both for maximizing the group’s reach and profitability and because its members were not necessarily on the same creative schedule. While 36 Chambers is a masterpiece to beat all masterpieces, it sometimes sounds like an album torn between two approaches. Many of its songs are ghoulish updates on formats that were lingering from the ’80s: kinetic routines where MCs bounce off one another, speaking directly to their mic skills as much as anything else. Then there are tracks like “Tearz,” “Can It Be All So Simple,” and “C.R.E.A.M.,” all reflections on the horror of surviving while poor in New York City, none asking the listener to step outside the writing and consider its execution. (It’s significant that Ghost, Rae, or both appear on all three of those records.)

By focusing on a batch of solo debuts rather than an immediate group follow-up, Wu’s highest-profile members were able to deepen their identities, even when that meant diverging from one another. There were guardrails on this differentiation, as RZA oversaw the production on Tical, ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ghostface’s Ironman. But as they deepened the grooves of their approaches—GZA’s hyper technicality, ODB’s outré madness, Ghost and Rae’s interwoven narratives and inscrutable slang—they might as well have been pitching ideas for when it came time to reconnect and attempt the impossible: topping 36 Chambers.

Recorded on both coasts but notably finished during a months-long stay in Los Angeles, Wu-Tang Forever came out in the wake of rap’s first megahit double albums. But where 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me had the unstoppable momentum of a man freed from jail only to be locked in a mummifying record contract, and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death set out to show that Big had mastered every popular style of rap before his 25th birthday, Forever aimed simply to stagger: with more bombast, more expensive set dressing, more borrowed Benzes for the stories’ villains and Adidas sweatsuits for the heroes.

The impulse was not strictly consumptive. Forever also took more seriously than 36 Chambers the notion of the album as a moral document. One of the only conspicuously long tracks is its first, “Wu-Revolution,” where Popa Wu expounds for nearly seven minutes on Five Percenter ideology. Alcohol and cigarettes are “the mental devil that exists within your body”; the Asiatic Black man is the planet’s original. (This idea—of the original man—is given a fascinating new dimension when ODB raps about his grandfather, Chief Fred Cuffie of the Shinnecock Nation, who owned part of New York City before selling it to white men.) The worst gesture in this vein is the Romeo and Juliet–sampling “A Better Tomorrow,” which is maudlin and didactic.

Far more effective is how the knowledge sounds when it mingles with the forces that conspire against it. It takes only a song and a half for RZA—who has by this point already compared himself to Caligula—to rhyme “Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig, A-leg-leg-arm-head” with “Spread like plague / We drink Hennessy by the keg,” drowning, one would presume, the god body. (RZA’s tangent, on “Impossible,” about contaminated vaccines and government experimentation on the imprisoned—the involuntary poisons—echoes differently today.) “A Better Tomorrow” aside, the Wu prefer to embody this tension rather than write directly about it. Take “The Projects,” where Ghost wrings his hands over impulses of the flesh, rapping luridly about sex only to have his condom break inside an AIDS patient. Forever seldom makes the listener leap very far from cause to effect. When Meth raps on that same song, “Behind every fortune there’s a crime,” it’s not a tease for intoxicating mob tales, rather a sober diagnosis.

And still, little of what a Wu rapper says is as interesting as how he says it. When ODB arrives on “Reunited,” vocals peaking through the mix, he says, “I come like a thousand doves”; when Cappadonna, who was not yet an official group member but appears on five songs, describes himself and his friends as “nighttime crawlers / Off-the-wallers, basketball gun brawlers,” he shows how RZA’s ungovernable energy and unmappable syntax had benefited the group. Early on the album’s first disc, Inspectah Deck brags that he “glide like hovercrafts on the Everglades”; on its second, when he wants to boast about having girls sneak weapons past nightclub security, he says the women “ease the guns in.”

That latter line comes from Forever’s lead single, “Triumph.” While many would argue that his verse on “C.R.E.A.M.” is the most memorable on 36 Chambers, it’s his opening turn on “Triumph” that would become his calling card, so much so that it’s survived its first line—“I bomb atomically, Socrates’s philosophies”—becoming shorthand for a kind of syllable-obsessed writing that has fallen out of vogue. “Triumph” features all nine Clan members plus Cappadonna, with everyone but ODB laying a verse over RZA’s urgent, hookless beat. ODB does make his presence known, especially on his defiant intro: “What? Y’all thought y’all wasn’t gonna see me? I’m the Osiris of this shit.” But the question he was addressing was a fair one. His voice appears on six of Forever’s songs, though it feels like even fewer, in part because he’s cordoned off, alone, on the forgettable solo track “Dog Shit,” which RZA buries deep in Disc 2. “As far as Ol’ Dirty goes,” Meth would tell Complex in a 2011 interview, “once we hit Cali, you couldn’t find that n---a.”

ODB was a volatile figure who dealt with a series of legal issues during his too-brief life. The far more puzzling relative absence on Wu-Tang Forever is GZA’s. He’s limited—or limits himself—to six appearances and only five full verses, four of those coming in the first eight tracks, with a single couplet representing the entirety of his contribution after “Triumph,” the second track on Disc 2. His voice does not appear at all across Forever’s final 45 minutes. Which is a shame, because those five verses are uniformly excellent, crafted with his trademark attention to detail. This includes one of the most devastating insults in hip-hop history, when he tells another rapper, “You can’t flow, must be the speech impediment / You got lost off the snare off ‘Impeach the President,’” referencing the famously accommodating drums, sampled countless times, from the Honey Drippers original.

But if the group’s technical spine and its roaming id were difficult to pin down in the literal sense, its figurehead’s vision was drifting along with them. Before Wu-Tang Forever, RZA’s sampling was confrontationally ingenious. Think of the way, with only the tiniest edits, he turned the melancholy from Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” into the stuff of outright horror on 36 Chambers’ “Tearz,” or how a fragment of Ann Peebles’s forlorn “Trouble, Heartaches & Sadness” is distended into a giant, swaggering pocket for GZA’s “Shadowboxin’.” I have more than once thought of those videos where lava oozes from the earth when listening to the mutation of New Birth’s “Honeybee” at the beginning of “Clan in Da Front.” That “Honeybee” flip is far from the only thing on that first cycle of Wu records that felt this way: raw, elemental, summoned from somewhere you wouldn’t go alone.

“Tearz,” like “Can It Be All So Simple,” “4th Chamber,” “Camay,” or innumerable other tracks, would have sounded slightly wicked even if a pop engineer had commandeered their sessions halfway through. But the griminess of those songs—and of the Wu sound writ large—was heightened by RZA’s tastes in mixing and mastering. Samples sounded as if they had been soaking in a gutter; when outside vocalists were brought in to do hooks, he often hung them out to dry, making their takes sit awkwardly on top the instruments, haunting the records rather than anchoring them. And when you first hear a live voice on 36 Chambers’ opening song, “Bring da Ruckus,” it’s his own—echoing, nearly disembodied, like it’s coming straight from hell.

On Forever, RZA rethinks his approach to the compositions themselves and to how they should be engineered. Discontent to keep digging in his crates for every element of every beat, he turned to session musicians who could augment them with live instruments. (“Reunited” is built around a violin played by Miri Ben-Ari, who would go on to broader fame years later with her extensive work on Kanye West’s The College Dropout.) But more important are those new mixes: crisper and cleaner to match the marginally brighter sound palate he chose to work with. “Cleaner” is not necessarily a pejorative; that mix on “For Heavens Sake” is in some ways extraordinary, with part of the vocal sample seeming to begin, every few bars, as a hint of reverb deep within the beat. And a song like “It’s Yourz” delivers on the promise of RZA lifted high above the flood waters, its Gaz sample unnervingly crystalline, its menace preserved.

A year later, on his solo album Bobby Digital in Stereo, RZA would land on a mostly sample-free style that hinged on synthetic sounds. Forever is a half-measure in that direction. At many points it feels as if 36 Chambers had been pulled, Tron-style, inside a computer (which, it so happens, is exactly what Loud’s highly publicized enhanced CD was aiming to do). There are few outright missteps, but plenty of tracks that sound just a bit uncanny. At its worst, this approach has a sterilizing effect, like on “As High as Wu-Tang Get,” where RZA bleeds all the warmth out of the Albert King sample that provides its structure. That original song, “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” is wistful but still a shade irreverent; you imagine ODB pleading, “Allah, allow us pop this shit!” over something with a little more life to it.

It’s telling that many of the beats on the double album that feel spiritually closest to the prior Wu records are made by RZA’s protégés. True Master’s relentless crime bounce on “The M.G.M.” and 4th Disciple’s “Impossible,” which sounds as if it’s trapped in a freezing vestibule, each sound like the choice cuts from Liquid Swords or Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… The point is not that these beats are cheap, or simple, or overly spare. It’s that they’ve isolated a key sonic element and drawn out its most cinematic end. So while RZA casts himself as Forever’s star—and contributes some truly excellent beats of his own—it’s to the album’s benefit that he let go of the reins, if only for moments at a time. “I stay secluded in the chamber,” he raps on “Hellz Wind Staff,” seemingly speaking to this feign toward torch-passing, “training new recruits.”

While RZA was seduced by the endless options success had afforded him, Method Man was finding the experience distinctly hollow. “My focus was lost by the middle” of the Forever recording process, he told Complex in that 2011 interview. “My heart just wasn’t in it like it used to be.” Meth felt uncomfortable in front of cameras but cocooned in the easy living that came with celebrity; he says he spent less time in the studio than ever before. At a certain point he snapped out of this (“What the fuck is this frivolous bullshit?” he remembers asking himself of the club scene circa ’97), but not before laying verses that he would listen to in later years and hear only disinterest.

The fact remains, though, that Meth is one of the greatest rappers to ever live, where “rapping” is a purely musical act. His voice is gruff but tuneful, comic yet full of real venom. Even when his writing slips, his takes are memorable. In fact, there are two points on Forever when Meth enters a song with what sounds like a chorus, but turns out to be, simply, the opening run of a verse: It happens on the first disc’s “Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move but the Money)” and again on “Duck Seazon,” when he slinks in after RZA and sounds like silk by comparison.

The exception to this pattern is “Bells of War,” where Meth begins sounding bothered and ends with total poise. (His opening bar—“There’s no honor amongst thieves”—is quickly qualified.) On that song, his restraint feels like an actorly choice rather than disengagement; there are few rappers before or since who could sell the pause he inserts in the line: “The smell of fear make my nostrils … flare.” Like some of the best Wu-Tang tracks, “Bells” sounds as if it’s crying, and for once on Forever, Meth is in tune with that.

Neither Ghostface nor Raekwon had to adjust. While the aesthetic direction of the album was a far cry from Cuban Linx…, the duo carved out part of it out for themselves. The most novel song on either disc is “The M.G.M.,” the brief song where the two rap together—overlapping, finishing one another’s thoughts—about a boxing match between Julio Caesar Chavez and Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker in Las Vegas and, just as importantly, the crowd that showed up for it. (The details do not exactly track with a real fight that took place, but pull from a few possible bouts.) Blood spills from boxers’ ears and popcorn spills “all on Liz Claiborne”; Deion Sanders lingers in the back of the crowd, talking to women with Wu Wear shirts on. At one point, Ghost begins to drill Raekwon on his reading from the Supreme Wisdom. Rae tries to respond (“If a civilized person doesn’t perform his duty, what shall be done?”), but Ghost cuts him off: “Pardon me, God—that n---a got a gun bulging out his sweatpants.”

“The M.G.M.” is outlandishly funny even when it nods to looming danger, but what it’s really trafficking in is ease. The interplay between rappers is never forced, and not a single rhyme scheme is tortured to move the plot forward. It’s crime pulp in a long tradition of such. Of course, there are other stellar iterations of this on Forever without the comic bent. Rae’s opening verse on the anthemic “Heaterz” seems to follow the same arcs in its narrative that it does in its little language games, its mid-tier hustlers scrambling from one score to the next, swerving “like the Nike line.” He does not have the kind of voice or demeanor that invites you to read biography between the lines or around the fringes of his verses. This gives him a certain authority when he assesses, for example, one of his creations living a “rich lifestyle / spoiled like an ordinary white child.”

But Wu-Tang Forever belongs to Ghostface. While Meth was positioned as the breakout star, ODB the uncontrollable eccentric, and Rae and GZA as having crafted the high-art masterpieces, Ghost’s Ironman pushed early Wu’s style to its kaleidoscopic endpoint. Which is not to say that he provided a working blueprint for his group mates—his writing has always been inimitable. On Forever, he showed how pliable it could be, testing the limits of both abstractness and naturalism. He and his characters mutter the Wisdom to themselves in leased Range Rovers and watch codeine muddy up unsuspecting drinks; they’re snatched out of their cars near Times Square and cry in court while facing the same judge who revoked ODB’s probation (that’s a true story). On the slinking “Older Gods,” his verse begins: “I roll like a bat out of hell,” and he does—he pledges to “hit the sky with springtime colors” and mocks “vegetable lasagna n---s” before interrupting the story of a sexual misadventure with the passing thought that he might break into rival rappers’ studios and set their DAT tapes ablaze.

His best verse, though, comes on “Impossible.” While The Source gave Deck a Hip-Hop Quotable for his “Triumph” opening, the magazine correctly tabbed Ghost’s “Impossible” turn as “Verse of the Year.” It begins with an uncomplicated setup: “Call an ambulance—Jamie been shot.” The next 31 bars all take place in the time between that moment and Jamie being pronounced dead minutes later.

There’s a short story by Tobias Wolff called “Bullet in the Brain,” in which an unsuspecting bank customer is shot and killed during a botched robbery. The story’s second half is the rush of memory, sensory and sentimental, that courses through the victim’s skull from the second it’s pierced until the time it shuts down for good. On “Impossible,” Ghost inverts this device, doing the remembering for his dying friend: He’s a grown man, being searched by a crooked cop who returns the baggie of coke he finds; he’s 8, tagging along with young Ghost to Yankee Stadium on Bat Day; he’s not yet born—omniscient—watching as their fathers rob banks together in ’69. While he flashes on these moments, Ghost notes the blood on Jamie’s Wallabees that looks like ketchup, the low battery message on a borrowed cellphone, the way Jamie is “photogenic” in the locket that holds a picture of him with his family, which he passes to Ghost with his last bit of energy. “Keep your head up,” Ghost had implored earlier: “If you escape hell, we gettin’ fucked up.” But as the life leaves Jamie’s body, Ghost feels a chill come over him, as if he’d been “cast out” of heaven.

“Impossible” has a definitive end—the paramedics pronounce Jamie dead at 12:10 a.m. At other points on Forever, it seems that Ghost could rap, well, endlessly. On “Cash Still Rules,” shortly after he’s revealed the kid who cries in court to be acting “like Denzel,” his verse begins to fade out. “Stacking his shit, financed a Volvo / He copped his shit from a small coffee shop in SoHo,” he raps, still rattling off details about a man who sells dust on the Lower East Side as his voice trails off into the ether.

This is appropriate, because Wu-Tang Forever can’t seem to figure out how it wants to end. The album closes with a bizarre anticlimax: a gentle solo song from U-God; “Second Coming,” which is given over entirely to the singer Tekitha; and a rambling skit from Raekwon that is far less pointed than its counterpart on Cuban Linx…—and, given that it’s a cappella, far less dramatic than the one that opens Forever’s second disc. “Black Shampoo” is a particularly bizarre pick for the spot: a hushed song about “Motion lotion / Breeze over the ocean / Lovers, bath crystals” that wields the Calgon tagline as a trump card. It is, perhaps, a shrewd addition to an album that implies this sort of doting as an alternative to the cruelty that most men show women, but otherwise does not indulge in it. But to leave it dangling as the cathartic release to the entire enterprise is stunningly strange. What elevates “Black Shampoo” from obligation to oddity—other than its place in the sequence—is that muted focus in U-God’s voice; by the end of the song, it’s grown so intense that you start to question whether the object of his desire is even listening.

It would be ridiculous, given its amorphous shape and unpredictable areas of strength, to criticize Wu-Tang Forever for being too long; any effort to trim it would inevitably do so at the expense of some of its more transfixing moments. But it’s a poorly paced record, stalling in its back half, due in no small part to the radical disparity in length between the two discs: The first runs just under 45 minutes, the latter over 67. And while the unusual finish does serve to highlight “Black Shampoo,” it severely undercuts the album’s staying power, drowning out any lingering thoughts about theme or style with rehashed complaints about biters. (Cuban Linx… probably does not need to end with “Heaven & Hell,” but after almost two hours, too much gravity is better than too little.)

If Wu-Tang Forever is an imperfect attempt to capture the most monumental rap group ever at its commercial and creative apex, it will have to do. Neither 2000’s The W nor 2001’s Iron Flag approach it or 36 Chambers; neither 2007’s 8 Diagrams nor 2014’s A Better Tomorrow exist. Some members have become legacy acts, others merely obscure. Of the five MCs who debuted before Forever, only Ghostface surpassed their initial efforts, and each attempted reunion has been marred by sniping in the press. The Wu-Tang project was, to be clear, an overwhelming success. (There is an entire subgenre of popular and critically acclaimed rap booming right now that is essentially a möbius strip of Cuban Linx… Xeroxes.) But the argument for Wu-Tang Forever’s canonization is that, with a collection of artists this talented, the tics and missteps are worth preserving, the slow drift apart as compelling as the mission statement, so long as the rough edges are left in place. Sometimes more is more.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.