Own It or Disown It: #286: Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Forever

OwnItorDisownIt

The iconic hip-hop outfit's second proper album turned twenty years old this year.

We’re still kind of living in the aftermath of Wu-Tang Forever. Regardless of however you feel toward the album, the agreed-upon consensus was that its reach was far outpaced by its ambition, and that sentiment led the RZA, the closest thing the Wu-Tang Clan has ever had to a proper leader, to take a step back and let everyone else do their thing for a while. Imagine, though, a world where Forever was as good as Enter the Wu-Tang and the RZA decided not to scale back on his ambitions but build upon them. As it is, it feels weird when the whole gang gets together for a full-length, and Forever is perhaps the greatest reason for that disconnect.

Those who aren’t invested in the Wu-Tang Clan might be confused at this point, so let me clear some things up. First: Enter the Wu-Tang is not a perfect album. Its great tunes are stacked in its second half, and I’d not fault the uninitiated for not getting to that point after the metric ton of weird shit in the album’s first half. This was an album that begged for sonic expansion and focus, and the group fulfilled on that promise in the form of a handle of solo albums (in name only) between the release of Enter and Forever. Most of them were pretty good, some challenged Enter in terms of raw quality, and devotees (myself included) posit that two of those albums, the GZA’s Liquid Swords and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, easily surpass the group’s first album in every measurable respect. With these spectacular releases came a form of expectation for the group’s next proper full-length album, and Wu-Tang Forever’s two discs, at a glance, presented the correct aesthetic for a logical follow-up.

Except…well, Enter the Wu-Tang, all things considered, is surprisingly short and slight. It is twelve songs that clock in at just under an hour, and it’d probably come in at under fifty minutes if you removed the skits and the concluding remix track. Enter isn’t worse for being slight; it’s the end result of one man tinkering with a project, cutting down what didn’t work until he found the exact midpoint between sounding distinct and sounding fresh. I’m unaware if the RZA forgot about Enter’s strengths as he composed Forever or if he deliberately sought to pursue a different direction, but whatever the case, Forever expunges a lot of the charm of what came before it.

I say that, and yet I can’t call most of Forever actively awful. Indeed, most of it is at least passable. You want unlistenable RZA glurge, I got your unlistenable RZA glurge in the form of his later Bobby Digital full-length. Forever never hits those lows, it never gets close, but a healthy portion of it is, in a way, worse by just being okay. It’s stuff like “As High As Wu Gets” and “Severe Punishment” and so much of the rest of Forever’s first disc, material that is a six out of ten on a good day and mostly serves as a reminder of a similar, superior song on a better album (the former song, for instance, sounds like a remix of the title track of GZA’s Liquid Swords). It becomes hard to justify giving Forever multiple listens when the cream of the crop rises to the top, especially given that such cream makes up less than half of the album’s total runtime—Forever, yes, is yet another double album that should have been only a single disc, but put me in charge of sequencing and I might have cut its 112 minutes down to 45.

That said, the redux cut of Forever could challenge Enter in terms of quality. “Triumph” remains the best posse cut the group ever touched, outpacing “Protect Ya Neck” by a country mile, and I feel more emotion from Ghostface Killah’s manic verse on “Impossible” than from the entirety of “Tearz”. “Reunited” would have been a contender for the best opening track on any Wu project had it actually opened the album, and late cut “Heaterz” may have gotten more love over the years had it not been buried so deep in goddamn Wu-Tang Forever. I don’t know that Forever Redux would for sure have been better than Enter, but it would have been better than what we got.

I’m giving this one a thumbs up but with a big ol’ asterisk next to it. If you want to put on an album for a smooth whole listen, this isn’t for you. What I recommend with Wu-Tang Forever is to give it one whole listen and take notes on what tracks stand out to you, then only listen to those tracks on a playlist or something. That probably doesn’t sound like glowing praise, but I’d argue that the best cuts here still deserve an audience. It may only be forty-five minutes of greatness taken from two hours of music, but I really love those forty-five minutes.

VERDICT: OWN

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