When Wu-Tang Forever dropped in June of 1997, it spanned 27 tracks and almost two hours in length. It debuted at No. 1 and sold (wouldn’t you know) 4 million copies. Wu-Tang Forever was excellent, but it was also unmistakably a “reunion” record, and in retrospect it felt like the end of something. Three years passed before the release of the next group album, 2000’s The W; it featured an unprecedented number of guest spots from non-Wu rappers and was stellar but disjointed, a bunch of famous dudes who enjoyed each other’s company but were primarily linked by the past. A year later the group reassembled for the half-baked Iron Flag, which was met with critical and commercial indifference. In 2007 Wu-Tang Clan released 8 Diagrams, the group’s first (and still only) full-length album since the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 2004; it was better than Iron Flag but sold even worse, and was marred by interpersonal conflict.
Neither the Wu-Tang Clan as a group nor any of its individual members has ever made a better album than Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, but that’s almost the point: By remaking rap in its own design, 36 Chambers became the perfect version of itself. And as for those members? Twenty years ago the suggestion that Ghostface Killah would have far and away the most prolific and consistently brilliant Wu solo career would have seemed unlikely—his contributions to 36 Chambers, while outstanding, lacked the visceral and flamboyant newness of some of his colleagues—but particularly in the 21st century, Ghostface has separated himself from the pack. 2000’s phenomenal Supreme Clientele was the first Wu-Tang solo album that felt like it had completely stepped out from the shadow of 36 Chambers, with its shimmering, hook-laced productions and brilliant (if legally questionable) use of audio from the short-lived 1960s animated series The Marvel Super Heroes. In the years since, Ghostface has remained one of the most critically adored MCs in rap, one of the genre’s greatest storytellers, who arguably hit his zenith with Fishscale in 2006, one of the best albums of the last decade.
Conversely, the Wu member whose career in 1993 seemed most destined for legend—Method Man—has had likely the most disappointing solo career, if only because the expectations were once so rightfully high. Meth was the star of 36 Chambers, the most charismatic and electric MC on the album: “Method Man,” first released as the B-side to “Protect Ya Neck,” was the LP’s lone solo showcase and remains one of the great displays of rhyming dexterity in rap. But after a knockout solo debut and a taste of pop stardom from his smash duet with Mary J. Blige, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” Meth fell into a pattern of diminishing returns. Tical 2000: Judgment Day was 28 tracks of meandering bloat, and Tical 0: The Prequel might be the worst Wu solo album to date. (Unless you’re Led Zeppelin, using the same album title three times is rarely a good sign). On the bright side, his aforementioned collaborations with Redman have been consistent bright spots, and his turn as Cheese Wagstaff on The Wire (almost) absolves all other sins.
Between the overachieving greatness of Ghostface and the underachievement of Method Man, the rest of the solo careers are remarkably diffuse. Raekwon has been a major presence in rap, a guest-spot champ and a purveyor of outstanding mixtapes, but a notorious perfectionism has hampered his official solo output. In the 18 years since Rae and Ghostface hooked up for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, a pinnacle of the Wu catalogue, Ghost has released 10 official albums, the Chef a mere three. He’s also repeatedly and publicly squabbled with RZA, and at times has seemed to bristle the most at his link to the Wu-Tang industrial complex. Inspectah Deck was a formidable force on 36 Chambers, but after a terrific solo debut, the long-delayed Uncontrolled Substance, his outings have been lackluster, though his recent Czarface collaboration with 7L & Esoteric showed some welcome signs of life.
GZA was the only Wu member who’d released a full-length solo album prior to 36 Chambers, 1992’s Words From the Genius, and when the Clan broke through, his lyrical gifts were already fully formed, and peerless. His 1995 release Liquid Swords is widely regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made, and his work since has been mostly excellent, particularly 1999’s Beneath the Surface and 2008’s Pro Tools, even if his sales numbers have rarely exceeded the cultish. In recent years he’s taken to performing Liquid Swords in its entirety at live shows, a crowd-pleasing move that suggests a resigned awareness of where his bread is buttered. U-God and Masta Killa were bit players on 36 Chambers and have found only modest solo success, although the latter’s No Said Date is among the most underrated Wu solo efforts, and I would absolutely recommend the former’s The Keynote Speaker (released just this past July) to anyone trying to listen to every single Wu-Tang Clan album.
As the sonic architect and beating heart of the Wu, RZA is one of the most influential musicians of the past 20 years, and his off-kilter, speed-shifting sampling techniques can be heard in the work of luminaries ranging from the late J Dilla to Kanye West. But perhaps his most underappreciated genius is that he’s never seemed to care much about being a star, seemingly content to sit with his record crates and mixing boards and march to the beat of his own unquantized drummer. His awesomely eclectic solo career has found him moving from the bizarro experimentalism of his first post-36 Chambers solo project, Bobby Digital in Stereo, to an increasingly immense array of film scores (Kill Bill; Blade: Trinity) to acting roles in films by directors ranging from Jim Jarmusch to Judd Apatow, to his latest calling, kung fu flick auteur. Through all of it, he has remained one of the most sought-after producers in hip-hop.
Twenty years ago the idea that Ol’ Dirty Bastard would be the last man mentioned in any Wu-Tang assessment would have been unthinkable. By the time he died, the demons had long since devoured the talent, but there was once a time when ODB’s was among the most thrilling voices in rap, and his cultural footprint still looms so large it’s easy to forget that he only made two albums. In a way, ODB’s unhinged mania was as crucial an ingredient to the original Wu mystique as RZA’s beats, his presence so outlandishly unbelievable that it made all the other crazy bullshit seem totally reasonable by comparison. His raps bore only a glancing relationship to conventions of rhyme and meter, full of stutters, bellows, and unhinged onomatopoeia; no rapper ever wielded the word fuck and all its variants more effectively. His debut solo single, “Brooklyn Zoo,” is one of the most indelible tracks in the Wu catalogue, and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” isn’t far behind.
Even by Wu-Tang Forever, his decline was apparent (he appears on only six tracks, often relegated to intros or choruses), and listening to something like 20 years of Wu-Tang, it’s unclear the Clan ever recovered from his loss. There are many potential reasons for this, starting with the fact that ODB was RZA and GZA’s cousin; for two of the collective’s most crucial members, this was something far more painful than just the death of a co-worker. But something even more intangible was lost, something that speaks to the beauty of 36 Chambers and what made those early years so extraordinary. The Wu-Tang Clan may have been a business arrangement deliberately calibrated as something larger than itself, but it somehow exceeded even that: The mythic collective was supposed to service the individuals, but along the way the myth became real. And any cartoon-loving kid of a certain age knows, you can’t form like Voltron if you’re missing a lion. In some sense I’m not sure the “complete” Wu-Tang Clan has been locatable since 2000, the last time a living ODB was heard on a Wu-Tang Clan album.
Earlier this year the Wu-Tang Clan dropped a killer comeback single, “Family Reunion”; RZA’s now trying to herd those surviving lions into one more album-length formation, and it’s recently gotten rocky. But it’ll happen and it’ll probably be great, even if it’ll never quite be like it was. The story of 20 years of the Wu-Tang Clan is a story of the messiness and magic of collaboration, of ups and downs and accumulation and loss. It’s pretty much the story of music itself, which is good and fitting because music has had no better representatives. After a lifetime of listening, I’m no closer to knowing what the “complete” Wu-Tang Clan is, I just know that it’s an absolutely staggering achievement.