March 17, 2011

Sach O doesn’t belong to anyone. He EVOLVES.

With the critical and commercial success of Only Built for Cuban Linx 2, Raekwon the Chef instantly nullified 10 years worth of disappointments, false starts and taunts from rap fans who’d long since stopped checking for him. So spectacular was this return to form that it’s easy to forget just how Sisyphean an ordeal it was to get that album released; it took over 5 years, 2 executive producers and a couple of labels – by all accounts, it should have been a disaster. For his part, Rae seemed positively humbled by the acclaim, vowing not to let this second chance slip him by and going on a rampage of razor-sharp guest spots for every big name in rap, his performances seemingly emboldened with the weight of expectations lifted from his shoulders. In a small irony however, Cuban Linx 2’s aftermath found him back where he was in 99: sans Rza and without the cushion of an instantly recognizable album title. Times have changed however and Shallah Raekwon has grown wise with years so worried fans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang is easily as dope as Cuban Linx 2. In fact, some of us here at Passion HQ think it’s better.

Abandoning the epic self-importance of the Cuban Linx series, Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang is a leaner, meaner animal, hearkening back to the Wu’s earliest days of raw rhymes and dusty break beats. Paradoxically however, it’s also Raekwon’s most mature offering to date, succeeding in updating the Shaolin sound where Rza failed with 8 Diagrams. A loose concept album dealing with themes of family, loyalty, jealousy and betrayal; Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang takes us through the memories of an aging warrior who’s seen it all and lived to tell the tales in rhyme form. In other words, it’s exactly what a 41-year-old emcee at the top of his game should be doing.

The title track, opener and first single acts as a mission statement, immediately throwing us into the fray after a short kung-fu clip presenting the conflict between the pious Shaolin Monks and the wild Wu-Tang. Doing away with the heavy-handed mafia-theatrics of Rae’s previous work in favor of 36 Chambers style rawness is a gambit that pays off, mostly freeing Rae from the crack-rap box while keeping him firmly grounded in comfortable territory. Though devoid of heart-wrenching epics ala “Pyrex Vision”, the trade off is a series of crime-rhymes emphasizing Rae’s re-energized writing with the resulting album sounding downright FUN – a mood Wu-Tang has struggled to conjure since the passing of ODB. With the vast majority of the album’s tracks landing under 3 minutes, the pace is relentless but Rae still finds time to throw in the kind of off-kilter curveballs that made the best Wu classics so fun to listen to: an Old’ Dirty sample on “Silver Rings”, a mid 90s style R&B chorus on “Chop Chop Ninja”, a Curtis Mayfield interpolation on “From The Hills” etc. As unexpected as it sounds, this is Rae’s Tical and his “Long Hot Summer” all in one, light hearted love-of-the-sport battle raps and story rhymes colliding with grown man themes. If you’ve ever rocked Wu-Wear, you’ll love it.

Those less dedicated to dusty 90’s boom-bap may find less to grasp onto. Sonically and lyrically, this is the most Asian sounding Wu-Tang album yet as Rae drops nigga for ninja, rocks Chinatown beats and actually rhymes about kung fu masters and abbots, something that the Wu mostly refrained from in the past. Those who like their rap music hard in the paint might want to refrain as things can get a bit goofy at times but it’s also endearing as Rae’s a skilled enough writer to pull off his extended metaphors without descending into self-parody. The album’s guest spots on the other hand, don’t always live up to the hype – while Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, Black Thought and the Wu (including a show stealing Method Man) come through, the long awaited Nas collabo “Black & Rich” is just average and Lloyd Banks adds nothing to “Last Train from Scotland.” Then there’s Crossover bid Rock & Roll, which sticks out like a sore thumb and serves as the album’s one recycling bin moment. Sorry Shallah.

Minor quibbles aside, the album’s a definite success: a well deserved victory lap from a legend once thought doomed to deliver diminishing returns.  Ending with the pensive “Scroll” and the epically dusty “Masters of our Fate”, the disc is the kind of well balanced, quality rap album that should be heard: a model for youths and elders alike. As for where Rae goes from here, the world is his oyster: the long awaited collabo album with Ghost (a real one)? Reuniting with Rza? Executive producing? All appealing options and all of them hard to believe considering the 10 years of purgatory endured after Immobilarity. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger though and Rae has emerged from the fire with the kind of strength and resolve that could carry a movement. The Wu-Tang Clan rises again.

MP3: Raekwon – Butter Knives
MP3: Raekwon-Shaolin Vs Wu-Tang

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