Wednesday, February 27, 2008

No. 386: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Band: The Wu-Tang Clan
Album: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of hip hop's greatest albums, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" is dense, dark and wonderful. All the MCs are distinct and great, while RZA's production is like nothing else.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Just on pure greatness of the album this should be in the top 20.
Best song: "Shame on a Nigga" is amazing, "C.R.E.A.M." is a classic and "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit" is the band's signature track.
Worst song: The closing track, "Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber - Part II" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

At the risk of sounding like the pompous bastard I actually am, the 1990s were a great decade. The underground was still unique enough to draw a contrast to the mainstream, while the two was beginning to creep together.

In rock and roll, grunge's foray onto the modern rock charts made for punk's acceptance into corporate culture. In hip hop, everything seemed to be turning and the huge amount of MCs coming into the game made for a dearth of standards as to what popular hip hop really was.

And as such, the Wu-Tang Clan were able to find its way into selling tons of records. In a normal reality, Wu-Tang shouldn't have sold any records. "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" is like nothing before it, full of Eastern philosophy, ghetto tales, grimey production, quirky pop culture references, outsized personalities and cartoonish violence. Quite frankly, there hasn't been much made since it was released, either.

The split between East and West coast styles is sometimes overstated, but Wu-Tang's production-style is a huge departure from Death Row's P-Funk re-dos and Public Enemy's James Brown samples. RZA wasn't taking samples from metal or crazy places, but he certainly was creating a distinct style. The album's sound has a dirtier feel than hip hop before, and a sound that has not been revisited.

While RZA has said some of this was because of shoddy equipment, but it works as well because the group members' voices are similarly grimey and distinctive. RZA branches different styles into certain songs -- "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" has an Eastern-style melody while "Shame on a Nigga" is outrageous -- but the album's theme of kung fu meets the ghetto is reflected in each song through samples and deep beats.

Many of the members of the Wu-Tang Clan have released brilliant solo albums, more than any other group I can think of. RZA has scored films (his score for "Ghost Dog" is absolutely wonderful). Ghostface's last two albums are among the best hip hop albums of the last few years and Method Man's collaboration with Redman ("Blackout!") is one of the best hip hop albums I've ever heard. Plus, whether you like him or not, Ol' Dirty Bastard's two albums are wildly entertaining.

But, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" is better than all of them. It's a brilliantly put-together record, with great group dynamics.


padraig said...

this is the most egregious misplacement on the entire list, as well as definitive proof that the writers who made this list shouldn't have even bothered dabbling in hip hop (or reggae, electronic music, metal, etc.). enter the wu-tang is on the short list for most influential albums ever, not to mention being better than about 99% of the albums ranked above it.

and ODB's first album has a lot of great moments but it's not on the same level as "Liquid Swords" (my favorite hip hop album ever), "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" or pretty much any of Ghostface's major releases or even "Tical". Dude had a totally unique style that was best suited to change of pace guest spots and his schtick kinda got old over an entire LP.

R.J. said...

You want egregious? I just got "Liquid Swords" last year. It took me 12 goddamned years to get a copy of it.

But, you're absolutely right. That Tupac isn't on the list is terrible, but that this record is almost in the bottom fifth is idiotic.

I'll say this in defense of ODB. The first album is pretty decent, but I find "Nigga Please" to be absolutely wonderful. The production is diverse enough to take advantage of his, uh, unique delivery and his lyrics are just off enough to be hilarious and good.

I look, specifically, to "I Can't Wait." That song is amazing and, quite simply, strange. It's like something out of Zappa's head.

padraig said...

rj - don't get me wrong, dude, those O.D.B. albums are pretty good - no one can deny that dude was vastly charismatic and really, NO ONE sounds quite like him. Maybe it's unfair to compare them to the string of absolute classics the Wu put out from '93-'97 or so. Both of his albums have some great songs, I just think they also have fair amount of filler in a way that most of the other first wave Wu releases don't, though that still puts them ahead of a lot of hip hop then and now. I like grimier hip hop so I prefer "Return the 36 Chambers" but I'd agree that "Nigga Please" is more enjoyable if you view it more as weird, perverted pop music, like a fusion of Zappa and a more serious Blowfly.

padraig said...

also, Tupac deserves to be on any list just for his importance as an artist but he is one of those dudes who never put an LP that was good from front to back. I was never a big Tupac fan but even if you are it'd be hard to go through any of his albums track by track without finding some mis-steps, whether it's r&b crossover bullshit or lame posse cuts with a bunch of subpar rappers or whatever. of course, that shouldn't have stopped Rolling Stone when their list is full of greatest hits packages and anthologies.