Below is an entirely subjective and probably incorrect ranking of the 20 greatest Wu-Tang Clan albums, as subject to my own inconsistent definition of the category.
1) Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Clan, 1993
The only easy decision on this list.
2) Liquid Swords, GZA, 1995
GZA and RZA are the Wu’s cerebrum, and Liquid Swords is the quintessential Wu solo album, the spiritual and intellectual inheritor of 36 Chambers. From its title track to “Cold World” to the incredible “Shadowboxin’,” Liquid Swords boasts dazzling rhymes and arguably the greatest production of RZA’s career. A majestically sophisticated work.
3) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Raekwon, 1995
Ranking Liquid Swords over Cuban Linx was the hardest decision here, and truth be told I probably listen to Cuban Linx more frequently. Affectionately known as “the Purple Tape,” Linx is a sprawling epic of crime and grime so vivid it feels less like a Wu satellite than a world unto itself. If “Ice Cream” were literally the only track on this album, it would still rank this high.
4) Fishscale, Ghostface Killah, 2006
Coke rap’s Blonde on Blonde. Ghostface has forged the greatest solo career of any Wu affiliate by a considerable margin, and Fishscale, which he released at the spry age of 35, might be his masterpiece. “Shakey Dog,” the album’s de facto opener, is four minutes of relentless narrative, and 22 tracks later you still haven’t caught your breath.
5) Supreme Clientele, Ghostface Killah, 2000
The only sophomore Wu solo effort that exceeds its predecessor (unless you count GZA’s 1992 Words from the Genius as a Wu solo effort, which I don’t). Highlights include “Apollo Kids” and the phenomenal posse track “Buck 50,” and even the interludes are great; never has audio from a ’60s cartoon show sounded so badass.
6) Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, 1995
Strictly in terms of quality, Return should probably be several spots lower than this, but no album better exemplifies the crazed, phantasmagoric side of Wu so critical to their early years. “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Cuttin’ Headz” are vintage ODB, and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” offered hip-hop’s best piano riff since “The Bridge Is Over.”
7) Tical, Method Man, 1994
Even if its sequels bred disappointment, Tical—the first Wu solo project to be released on the heels of 36 Chambers—is a classic of mid-1990s rap. Coming off 36 Chambers, Meth was a can’t-miss star, and Tical, which boasts bangers like “Release Yo’ Delf” and the seminal “Bring the Pain,” lived up to the hype. The album version of “All I Need” is less famous than the Mary J. Blige remix but no less compelling.
8) Wu-Tang Forever, Wu-Tang Clan, 1997
Wu-Tang Forever arrived as a double album at a time when that still meant lugging around two CDs in your Case Logic wallet. At the time of its release, both the album and its expectations felt so daunting it seemed impossible to evaluate, but it’s aged remarkably well, and its best tracks—such as “It’s Yourz,” “Reunited,” “Visionz,” “Triumph”—are worthy of its predecessor
9) Ironman, Ghostface Killah, 1996
By the time Ghostface’s tour de force solo debut finally arrived in 1996, it almost felt like an afterthought, which gives a sense of how insane the output of RZA, et al. was during this period. “Daytona 500” is one of the most thrilling displays of rhymesmanship in the Wu catalogue, and “All That I Got Is You” is a work of stunning depth that foretold the greatness to come from Ghostface.
10) Uncontrolled Substance, Inspectah Deck, 1999
Inspectah Deck has a bone to pick with fate. Uncontrolled Substance was supposed to be released in 1995 before a flood at RZA’s studio destroyed most of the album’s tracks. The album then got lost in the shuffle, and by the time Uncontrolled Substance finally emerged in 1999, almost simultaneous with the arrival of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Nigga Please, the Rebel INS’ solo debut had gone from being released in the same breath as Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords to being released when the dominant Wu-related storyline was what crazy thing ODB was going to do next. A shame, and Uncontrolled Substance is an excellent if underheard album.
11) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, Raekwon, 2009
To give a sense of just how much time passed between Cuban Linxes, Raekwon released Part 1 three years before Google was invented, and released Part 2 a year into Obama’s first term. (Granted, he released two albums and a ton of mixtapes in between, but still.) It proved worth the wait, though, and the Elton John-sampling “Kiss the Ring” is magnificent.
12) No Said Date, Masta Killa, 2004
Masta Killa and Cappadonna are the are-they-or-aren’t-they members of the Wu. I chose to disqualify Cappadonna from this list because he doesn’t appear on 36 Chambers. (Cappachino’s solo discography admittedly made this a pretty painless decision, even if his guest spots on “Ice Cream” and Ironman’s “Winter Warz” are indispensable contributions to the Wu oeuvre). Masta Killa, on the other hand, does, if only on one track (“Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ ”). His solo debut, No Said Date, appeared a cool 11 years after 36 Chambers, and despite only modest commercial success the album was surprisingly excellent, a welcome burst of Shaolin hip-hop at a generally fallow time for the Empire.
13) The W, Wu-Tang Clan, 2000
The Clan’s third album felt a little like “Wu-Tang Clan and Friends,” featuring guest spots from the likes of Nas, Isaac Hayes, Snoop Dogg, and Redman. That said, it was still awfully good, and the album’s closer, the massive, sobbing, reggae’d-out Junior Reed feature “Jah World,” is stunning.
14) Blackout!, Method Man and Redman, 1999
I would rank the first Method Man/Redman collaboration several spots higher except for the fact that even including it is probably cheating. Weed rap is an admittedly limiting genre, but this is about as good as that genre gets. It also includes a nominal remix of “How High,” Meth and Redman’s 1995 smash collaboration from the Show soundtrack and one of the best songs about drugs ever written.
15) Bobby Digital in Stereo, RZA, 1998
The kind of album you politely refer to as “interesting,” this might be the most elaborately weird thing anyone involved with the Wu has ever done, which is saying something. A work that RZA freely admits sprung from a weed-induced vision, Bobby Digital in Stereo vacillates between ridiculously brilliant and ridiculously pretentious, often within seconds. An acquired taste but a worthwhile one.
16) Pro Tools, GZA, 2008
GZA is a phenomenal lyricist and an incredibly interesting and likeable dude, which is probably why we don’t dwell on the fact that he’s never made another solo album nearly as good as Liquid Swords. One reason for this is that he seems to lack the ear for (or perhaps just the access to) the top-shelf beats that, say, Ghostface has snatched up over the years, and the production on much of his solo work has been forgettable. Pro Tools is a welcome exception to this, an album of off-kilter, vaguely futuristic-sounding beats that mostly live up to GZA’s razor-sharp rhymes.
17) Twelve Reasons to Die, Ghostface Killah with Adrian Younge, 2013
A concept album about a comic book that’s probably itself about a concept album, this is one of the most fascinating and ambitious works of Ghostface’s career. Younge’s film-score chops make a vivid pairing with Ghostface’s cinematic rhyming sensibility. Released earlier this year, the album wasn’t a hit, but I’m not sure it was supposed to be.
18) Cocainism, Vol. 2, Raekwon, 2010
An irrational selection that’s a personal favorite and probably shouldn’t count, as it’s a mixtape and not an official album. But still: the translation of cocaine from a recreational drug to an ideology, the fact that this is “Vol. 2” of a series that boasts no “Vol. 1” to speak of—it’s all just great, as is the music. “Piss in the Shark Tank” is everything you could possibly hope for.
19) Nigga Please, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, 1999
A controversial work in every sense, from its title (reportedly chosen only after The Black Man Is God, the White Man Is the Devil was rejected) to its disconcerting position in the career of ODB. Depending on one’s disposition, this album can either sound like a transgressive work of genius or a disturbing document of self-destruction.
20) The Keynote Speaker, U-God, 2013
Better than you’d think.