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Back in 2007, conflicts within the Wu-Tang Clan were rife, as the group released their fifth album, 8 Diagrams, to the dissatisfaction of some of its key members. Among those unhappy were Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, claiming that RZA’s increasingly experimental production style had strayed from the classic Wu-Tang sound. Here lies the origin of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, a concept album of sorts that is completely free from RZA’s contributions. Initially mooted as a group project away from the RZA, it later became Raekwon’s solo project, albeit with a little help from his friends.
Following the triumphant sequel to Wu spin off classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx in 2009, Raekwon has certainly given himself a lot to live up to here. But while some may have expected the chef to fall on his Shaolin sword, he has delivered another consistent and occasionally inspired body of work. Although perhaps lacking the sprawling ambition of the Cuban Linx albums, and at times feeling a little rough around the edges, the back to basics feel of Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang is a sensible step back from one of the more grounded members of the clan.
In the absence of the RZA, production duties are competently handled by a mixture of newcomers and established producers. While the bigger names (Oh No, The Alchemist, DJ Khalil) turn in predictably strong beats, there are also notable contributions from new faces Selasi (‘Snake Pond’) and Tommy Nova (‘Masters of our Fate‘). Despite the pick ‘n’ mix selection of producers, though, the record feels tight and cohesive, succeeding in recapturing some of the rawness of early Wu-Tang. As stated in recent interviews, Raekwon has little interest in making party hip hop, and he mostly stays true to a gritty street sound. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but even a surprising collaboration with Brit R&B star Estelle on ‘Chop Chop Ninja’ manages to sound convincingly authentic.
While Raekwon’s flow and delivery has never been as caricatured as his fellow clan members, he is known for making focussed records using guests to add colour and variation. The approach is no different here, as he brings together an all-star cast of regulars including Method Man, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought and, of course, Ghostface. There is even the long awaited revival of his collaboration with Nas on ‘Rich and Black‘, and a feature from Rick Ross on smooth, horn laden album highlight ‘Molasses’. Despite this being undoubtedly a lower key affair than Cuban Linx…Pt II, there’s something cinematic about its vague conceptual nature, unsurprisingly tied together by obscure martial arts clips. Particularly ‘Masters Of Our Fate’, with its dramatic string arrangement, behind which Raekwon and Black Thought trade verses tackling grand themes.
Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang is by no means perfect: the Khalil-produced lead single ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ leaves me a little cold despite strong production, but the hits easily outweigh the misses. It’s unlikely this record will be met with anywhere near the fanfare of his last, but Raekwon has proved himself capable of shining both in the limelight and the backseat. As the album rings out with a Wu-Tang chant over an epic Ennio Morricone-esque arrangement, the clan appears to be as strong as ever. It’s been nearly two decades at the top for this seminal hip hop group, and on this evidence they show no signs of losing their edge.
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