Wu-Tang Forever, the second studio LP from the Wu-Tang Clan, is now 25 years old and a great monument on rap’s landscape – yet history will never accurately capture just how audacious the album’s title was at the time of its release. Even in the hyperconfident world of hip-hop, it stood out: many MCs refer to themselves as the greatest of all time, but Wu-Tang really sounded as if they thought they were eternal. This was some claim, given that they had only put out their first record, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), four years before. But when Wu-Tang Forever made its way out into the world, the group’s legendary status was already assured. How did they do it?
For one thing, they shattered some rules and rigorously observed all the rest. For example, in an era of a much-hyped feud between the East and West Coasts of the US – an enmity that would have fatal consequences for Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur – the Clan, who were from New York, spent plenty of time relaxing and recording in Los Angeles. What’s more, at a time when rappers freely collaborated with each other on various projects, the infamously insular Clan mostly worked with each other, to the extent that it was a shock when anyone from outside their orbit appeared on a Wu-Tang record. For some time, that was an honour only granted to Nas on Raekwon’s 1995 release Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, where he opened the track “Verbal Intercourse”. (This Raekwon record came in the middle of a blitz of solo albums of astonishing quality by the Clan’s members: it is scarcely believable that, between 1993 and 1997, we were also treated to GZA’s “Liquid Swords”, Ghostface Killah’s “Ironman”, Method Man’s “Tical” and ODB’s “Return to the 36 Chambers”. It is one of the greatest runs of releases by any band or outfit in musical history.)
Most important, though, was Wu-Tang’s identity. The Clan captured heads, ears and hearts so quickly because it is clear from the opening note and frame of their first music video exactly who they were: never before or since has a hip-hop outfit had so instantly recognisable a sound and aesthetic at the same time. Their particular genius was to take Staten Island, a borough of their city little known beyond its borders, and use it as the foundation of their myth. While rappers from, say, Brooklyn and Queens relied on hard realism for their tales, the Clan imbued their stories with endless references to kung fu, chess and a higher philosophical struggle: they were a magic realist feature film masquerading as a hip-hop group. Their individual members complemented each other as sublimely as the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their abilities with words were similarly superheroic. Their logo, reminiscent of Batman’s symbol, could at one point have been shone in the night sky to summon legions of their fans to any venue. And overseeing this all was RZA, their chief producer and the electromagnet holding together the balance of the Clan’s egos and characters and talents, whose own ego would contribute to the group’s fall from prominence.
That would come a little later, though. In 1997 the Clan were at their creative and commercial peak, so assured of their brilliance that they released “Triumph”, a six-minute song without a chorus, as Wu-Tang Forever’s debut single. Such boldness was justified: the album went straight to the top of the Billboard 200 charts, selling more than 600,000 copies in its first week. “Triumph” itself is a showcase of what Wu-Tang did best. It has, among other things, a classic adlib from ODB, and perhaps the greatest opening rhyme of all time from Inspectah Deck: “I bomb atomically/Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries”. It has a thrilling entrance from Method Man, whose arrivals on stages made men and women alike hoarse with joy. And it has an intelligible yet authoritative closing verse from Raekwon, an MC for whom lyrical clarity was less important than flow and intensity. Like the Clan, he had his own language, his own lane.
Listening back to Wu-Tang Forever, several things are clear. One is that, at about two hours, it is too long, feeling at times as meandering as Moby-Dick. This was possibly RZA’s intention: at that point of the Clan’s fame, their fan-base wanted work in which they could immerse themselves, knowing that for months they would be listening to little if nothing else. It was designed not so much an album as an ocean. Another is the magnificence of the instrumentation, maybe most notable in the plaintive violins of “Reunited”, the shuddering, apocalyptic “Heaterz”, and the distorted, stadium-echo bass of “It’s Yourz”. This album sounds bleak, as if warning of a spiritual storm-cloud about to descend over our souls. Then there is the bewildering brilliance of the MCs working together, with Ghostface and Raekwon exchanging commentary from the side of a boxing ring on “The MGM”, and GZA, RZA and Method Man – the undeclared star of this album, getting all the spots where he will shine most – swapping half-lines on “Deadly Melody”. Finally, though, there is the misogyny, which was cringeworthy at the time and is now unavoidable, making some tracks, such as the latter part of the otherwise stellar “The Projects”, largely unlistenable. It is the one thing that has made this record date faster than anything else.
It is to RZA’s credit that he kept this disparate collection of individuals so thrillingly in sync for so long, and it is partly due to his demanding, authoritarian nature – failing, when warned by his fellow rappers, to vary or evolve his production style at the turn of the 2000s – that the chasing pack of hip-hop producers was allowed to catch up and overtake him. When all is said and done, though, Wu-Tang Forever is as revolutionary in popular culture as The Matrix. They share a brooding yet optimistic quality, and are simultaneously ancient and futuristic in their look and philosophy. Both works were not only a gift but a challenge to artists towards the turn of the millennium, to see where – inspired by their astonishing vision, motivated by their flaws – they could take the world next.