The Wu-Tang saga is a revolution that swarmed on the music industry like a pack of killer bees. Straight out of the slums of Shaolin, the Clan created an often imitated but never duplicated sound comprised of eerie beats mixed with puzzling stanzas and clashing kung-fu swords. The collective powers of RZA the Abbot, GZA the Genius, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon Shallah, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Cappadonna have entertained and inspired legions with perplexing rhymes full of grit.
With this year's Rock the Bells line-up featuring Raekwon and Ghostface performing all of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and GZA doingLiquid Swords, it's a perfect time for Complex to enter all 36 Chambers to unmask The 100 Best Wu-Tang Clan Songs. Don't forget: Protect ya neck, kid.
Listen to Complex's Best Wu-Tang Clan Songs playlists here: YouTube/Spotify/Rdio
Written by Gabriel Alvarez of @egotripland
Rapper GZA ruffled feathers with his recent opinion essay The Lost Art of Lyricism, which makes the case that today’s MCs aren’t writing dope lines and verses. “Rappers aren’t grabbing you anymore, it’s not pulling me in,” he wrote, before adding: “It’s irrelevant. It’s not about the art form anymore.”
This follows in a long tradition of Wu-Tang Clan members complaining about the state of hip-hop. A few years back Method Man, Raekwon, and Ghostface went in on rappers who were too “pop”. It was all a thinly veiled critique of the then-dominant Southern sound, which they vilified for its simple lyrics and dancefloor beats. RZA went so far as to question the intelligence of southerners generally.
Wu-Tang's GZA says 'lyricism is gone' from modern rap
But southern rap has fallen from its perch, which is perhaps why GZA focused his critique on popular hip-hop generally. “I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today, but when you look at mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone,” he says. To clarify, he’s not criticizing today’s production styles, the influences of EDM, or trap, or jazz, or anything like that. He’s solely criticizing the words rappers are saying.
To many hip-hop fans (particularly those under 40) this probably seems preposterous. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Run the Jewels, Earl Sweatshirt, and Young Thug are writing challenging, verbose songs, to say nothing of the countless underground rappers who are pushing the genre forward. It’s genuinely surprising that GZA couldn’t pay even grudging respect to, say, Kendrick Lamar, someone most golden era stars hold in high regard.
Perhaps to really understand GZA’s issue, we have to parse his words further. Really, he seems to value one type of content above others: rapping about rapping itself. He praises a Big Daddy Kane verse this way: “He’s talking about MCing! He’s talking about his craft!” He also praises Rakim: “He rolled with a bunch of hardcore street dudes but he never talked about running up in the club and blasting dudes. He was beyond that. He spoke about his lyrical skills.” In fact, GZA’s piece threatens to descend into self-parody when he lays out his most specific complaints: “Nowadays there are certain things I don’t hear anymore from rappers: I haven’t heard the word ‘MC’ in so long; I haven’t heard the word ‘lyrical’.”
This is downright silly. To be fond of MCs extolling their own styles is one thing; that, perhaps, was the soul of early hip-hop. But to expect today’s rappers to continue doing it, and to expect them to use specific words in the process, discourages evolution. It’s full on:
There’s no doubt that today’s brightest MCs aren’t focused on big-upping themselves. Instead, they’re talking about politics, racism, or other societal problems, or perhaps their tortured psyches or their own mortality. But existential probing doesn’t seem to carry much weight for the Genius, although at the end of the essay he concludes: “It’s all about the story.”
Really? Because, if this is what he believes, he’s in for a shock: we live in the golden era of rap storytelling. With all due respect to Slick Rick, more rappers than ever are crafting intriguing plots and layered characters. Following on the heels of Kendrick’s Good Kid, Maad Citywas fellow Compton rapper YG’s conceptual classic My Krazy Life, and then, from a little further north in LA, Open Mike Eagle’s Dark Comedy. These complement highly lyrical works in recent years from artists like Pusha T, Gunplay, Kanye West, and even Lil Boosie. All of them use words to tell complex stories that tell us something new about the times we live in, or ourselves. If these characteristics don’t make rap great, I don’t know what does.
“When I was in Wu-Tang, and even before that, it’s always been about being lyrical – who can craft the wittiest, the most intellectual, the smartest and the cleverest rhymes,” GZA writes. Indeed, these traits may seem to have suffered, in an era where Pitbull and Flo Rida are global hip-hop brands.
But one doesn’t have to dig very hard to find contemporary rap albums where the lyric is king. Even within GZA’s own group, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah are continuing to add to the canon. If he doesn’t want hip-hop to evolve, that’s fine. But even by his old-timey standards, the genre continues to thrive.