(ed. note – some links may lead to material which is NSFW) The Wu-Tang faced high expectations for their second group album, following their collective debut and the the string of memorable solo releases which followed. I remember that I personally hoped for greatness but expected mediocrity. Many artists, even great ones, succumb to “sophomore slumps” on their second albums, and I remember thinking that the Wu might be especially susceptible, considering the amount of worthwhile ideas that might have been saved for the second album that instead went to the group’s solo artists. I honestly shouldn’t have worried, as Wu-Tang Forever still stands today as one of the greatest albums ever made, not only in the discussion of hip-hop, but for music, period. I’ve been trying to think all this last week, what exactly is it that makes the Clan’s music so compelling, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two elements at work. It might seem obvious to say it, but it all boils down to vocals and beats. The fact is that the Clan really does feature some of the “illest MC’s in the world today”, from the rapid-fire stories from Ghostface to dense and complex pop culture reference-laden verses from Method Man, no to mention the unsung heroes like Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck, and it’s hard to question the Wu-Tang Clan’s dominance. Add to that equation the dark, intense, and unorthodox beats from Rza and his proteges, like True Master and 4th Disciple – beats that draw upon an unlikely combination of old soul cuts, martial arts movies, and live instrumentation for musical works of art of beauty and raw emotion that would outshine many rappers of lesser prowess, and you’ve got a recipe for some of the greatest hip-hop ever recorded. Now consider that both of these elements were showcased at a peak that hasn’t been topped before or since on the Clan’s second record, and it’s easy to see why the album is so beloved. Instead of running out of ideas, the Clan had spent the four years since they first exploded onto the scene honing their craft and focusing their ideas to razor sharpness. The fact that “Wu-Tang Forever” is a double album – two CDs – makes the project that much more impressive when we consider that there’s hardly a dud track among the almost thirty cuts on offer here.
Take “Reunited” for example. The first song after the first disc’s introduction, features live violin from Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari. Now, taken by itself, the instrumentation of this song, that violin track against the Rza’s sampled drums and bass stabs, is a thing of complete and utter beauty, full of heart and emotion. With the raps added to the track to complete the package, from Gza’s laid-back intellectualizing to ODB’s energetic free-associating, and you’ve got an opening salvo that ranks as one of the highest peaks ever reached in the genre of rap. The musical format just doesn’t get any better than this, and it’s just the second track of a collection that doesn’t let up for nearly two hours.
“Triumph“, a single from the second disc of the set, remains one of the Clan’s most celebrated tracks. and is one of the few tracks to feature all ten rappers from the Clan. Inspectah Deck’s verse from this song is often cited by fans as the greatest verse ever committed to tape from any Wu rapper. An unusual choice for a single due to its length – the song is over five and a half minutes long – the single nonetheless drove sales of the album to multi-platinum status.