Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Album: Wu-Tang Clan - Chamber Music

Chamber Music
Album: Chamber Music
E1 Entertainment, 2009
Rating: ********* (9/10)

As the album title suggests, Wu-Tang Clan's new LP is a return to the group's roots, their 1993 debut, 36 Chambers. And being sixteen years older and short one Ol' Dirty Bastard, the WTC's new project does remarkably well at recapturing the raw, independent spirit of that first release.

Of course, this isn't nearly that album's equal, but who could expect that? Their debut was hands-down the greatest rap album of the 90's and better than anything in the last decade as well. Kinda hard to top.

The stylistic return could come off as a sad attempt of the group to relive its past glories, or worse, like a childish response to the accusations that the group had gone "soft" with it's last release, 8 Diagrams. But Chamber Music doesn't ignore the last sixteen years. It doesn't ignore the fact that the group has grown up musically and personally, and that the context surrounding their music has also shifted dramatically.

It also doesn't ignore the fact that in addition to ODB's death, several original members have left the fold - the absence of Method Man and GZA is glaring, though the rest of the core crew returns. Any gaps in the group are filled in by a well-selected set of guests, many old-school luminaries predating even the WTC's earliest work. Outstanding contributions from such legendary MCs as Masta Ace and Kool G Rap certainly soften the blow.

The album may be "retro" in its sound, but it is self-consciously so. The beats are largely built around contributions from soul group the Revelations and under RZA's heavy production, the samples sound like a throwback to the 1970's - that is, a throwback to the last time mainstream R&B was actually good. And don't worry that the R&B backing is overkill, there are plenty of stretches of minimalist beats to keep the album from sounding cramped or overwrought. There's still that pure, primal attack that makes fans of early hardcore rap (like me!) very pleased.

The album does include an all-out soul cut, "I Wish You Were Here," but doesn't include the muddle of rapping and sing-song that has plagued so many recent hip-hop releases. This may be because, as in the beats, the soul components in the vocals hearken back to the glory days of soul and R&B instead of mimicking the banal top-forty whiners.

In a way, the vintage sounds unearthed and combined in Chamber Music provide a stunning cross-section of the music's history. Unlike most modern hip-hop, even most modern music in general, Chamber Music not only acknowledges its roots but fully incorporates them. Instead of sounding like a washed up effort to recapture some glory past, the Wu-Tang sound more relevant than ever in the context of the evolution of hip-hop music and culture.

If there was any doubt, consider it gone: Wu-Tang Clan can still do it harder and better than any post-2000 kid. Sixteen years down the road, they still ain't nothing to fuck with.

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