The most significant event of the early 1990s was probably the advent of
Wu-Tang Clan, a loose affiliation of rappers based in the New York borough of
Staten Island, and obsessed with martial-arms imagery, including
Gary "Genius/GZA" Grice, who had already released the solo
Words From the Genius (1991),
Russell "Ol' Dirty Bastard" Jones, who formed the collective with Genius in 1992,
Clifford "Method Man" Smith,
Dennis "Ghostface Killah" Coles,
Corey "Raekwon" Woods,
Lamont "U-God" Hawkins,
Jason "Inspectah Deck" Hunter,
Elgin "Masta Killa" Turner.
Their sound, a diligent tribute to old-school rap,
was largely crafted by Robert "RZA" Diggs, the musical genius of the group.
The Wu-Tang Clan (a "clan", not a "gang") was also a financial venture: from
the beginning, the members agreed to share the profits derived from whatever
financial benefit the Wu-Tang Clan brand name would bring.
Their first singles
Protect Ya Neck and C.R.E.A.M.
and their first album
Enter the Wu-Tang (1993) upped the ante for the entire scene,
while, at the same time, appealing to a broad audience.
Despite the hype,
the double album Wu-Tang Forever (1997) was mostly a production
tour de force by RZA (Triumph), overflowing with filler.
As RZA relented his artistic grip on the group, the Wu-Tang Clan returned
to the basics on
The W (2000) and Iron Flag (2001)
Robert "RZA" Diggs and "Prince Paul" Huston,
the producer of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising,
penned Gravediggaz's gothic 6 Feet Deep (1994), the manifesto of
Of all Wu-Tang members,
Method Man sold the most records, thanks to Tical (1994),
produced by RZA,
Tical 2000 (1998) and Blackout (1999), a duo with Redman.
Bring The Pain
All I Need
What The Blood Clot
Meth Vs. Chef
Release Yo' Delf
I Get My Thang In Action
Russell "Ol' Dirty Bastard" Jones debuted solo with
Return to the 36 Chambers (1995), produced by RZA,
which became a major hit thanks to
Brooklyn Zoo and Shimmy Shimmy Ya.
Repeatedly arrested, he managed to released a second album,
Nigga Please (1999), before landing in a penitentiary for good.
He was arrested several more times.
He died in 2004 of an overdose, one year after being released from jail.
GZA/Genius narrated Liquid Swords (1995), produced by RZA,
the most dramatic and cinematic of the solo projects. But
Beneath the Surface (1999) showed how important RZA's presence
(in this case, absence) was.
Ol' Dirty Bastard (real name Russell Tyrone Jones)
made one of the most creative albums of the mid 1990s,
Return To The 36 Chambers (1995),
but then followed it up with mediocre collections:
N***a Please (1999),
The Trials And Tribulations Of Russell Jones (2002),
A Son Unique (2006).
Corey "Raekwon" Woods debuted with the effervescent
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995), aka "the purple tape",
virtually a collaboration with Ghostface and as usual produced by RZA,
And his slow, noir and sleek production is protagonist of the
mock-heroic march Knuckleheadz and of the demented soul-tinged
Glaciers Of Ice.
Neurotic noise and mournful violin surround the moving girl confession of Rainy Dayz (the album's emotional zenith),
a claustrophobic atmosphere of repetitive piano and phantom voices permeates Ice Cream,
strings envelop the tragic Knowledge God,
funereal bells and solemn horns wear out the meditation of Criminology,
sensual female humming provides the counterpoint for Verbal Intercourse,
a loop of vocals battles with the beat in Ice Water,
female soul vocals and lounge-style piano accompany the melancholy
Heaven & Hell,
and Isaac Hayes-ian orchestration sweeten the philosophical North Star.
The rappers' cinematic eloquence shines in Incarcerated Scarfaces,
and in the harrowing audio-verite of Can It All Be So Simple.
Overall, these raps compose a vast fresco of violent street life, with
colloquial dialogues between Raekwon and Ghostface Killah that introduce the
various themes as if they were interviewed for a documentary.
followed it with the vastly inferior Immobilarity (1999) and The Lex Diamond Story (2003).
Dennis "Ghostface Killah" Coles debuted solo with Ironman (1996), an
album of soul revival, but found his true voice with
the much more ambitious Supreme Clientele (2000), another RZA
masterwork to frame his dadaistic wordplay, and Bulletproof Wallets (2001).
The Pretty Toney Album (2004) matched all his previous albums both in
exuberance and in catchiness, and establishes Ghostface as the leading former Wu-Tang in the new decade.
RZa debuted solo with the schizoid Bobby Digital In Stereo (1998),
followed by the mediocre soundtrack Ghost Dog (2000) and by
Bobby Digital's uneven Digital Bullet (2001).
His first album credited to RZA, Birth of a Prince (2003),
was a disappointment.
A Wu-Tang Clan side project,
Wu-Tang Killa Beez released The Swarm Vol 1 (1998) and The Sting (2002).
Other solo albums by this mass-production industry were
Inspectah Deck's Uncontrolled Substance (1999)
U-God's Golden Arms Redemption (1999),
Masta Killa's No Said Date (2004).
Legend of the Liquid Sword (2002) and
Pro Tools (2008),
as well as a collaboration
with DJ Muggs, Grandmasters (2005).
While the Wu-Tang Clan is generally undergoing a rapid artistic decline,
Ghostface Killah's popularity kept increasing.
The 24-song Fishscale (2006), produced by masters such as
MF Doom, Madlib and Pete Rock, simply obliterated anything else the "clan"
did at the time. The powerful, even brutal, death-obsessed, cinematic
storytelling (often little more than a stream of consciousness)
was not innovative ma immensely effective.
By comparison, The Big Doe Rehab (2007) is flawed because his visceral
style is wrapped in a hodgepodge of different styles.
Ghostface Killah settles for just one of those styles, the pop-soul ballad,
on Ghostdini: Wizard Of Poetry (2009), a major career shift.
Not surprisingly, Ghostface Killah did not feature prominently on
the Wu-Tang Clan's Eight Diagrams (2007), dominated by RZA's
three-dimensional sound experience (Campfire,
Stick Me for My Riches, and especially the
Morriconian hip-hop jam Wolves)
and his philosophical/mystical tone-poems
However, for one thrilling Rushing Elephants there are at least two
pop songs too many
(Starter and The Heart Gently Weeps, a variation on the Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps with John Frusciante on guitar).
RZA's Digi Snacks (2008) completed the trilogy of concept albums devoted
to the fictional superhero Bobby Digital. The sounds had moved dramatically
closer to rock music, with RZA even playing a guitar and fronting a real band.
Blackout! 2 (Def Jam, 2009) was the second collaboration of Method Man
and Redman, an elegant and nostalgic recreation of the sound of the 1990s.
Corey "Raekwon" Woods decided to give a sequel to his first solo, but it took
him four years to complete it.
The fuller, warmer, gentler sound of Return Of The North Star,
produced by BT, signals the changes that have occurred in a decade: this
is a star of the entertainment industry, not a street gangster.
The storyline is heavily influenced by Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Godfather".
The main difference between the first one and
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part II (2009) was that
RZA contributed only three beats
(Black Mozart, New Wu, and the
Fat Lady Sings).
J Dilla produced three of the highlights:
the bouncing highly-danceable House of Flying Daggers,
further enhanced by the contributions of Jason "Inspectah Deck" Hunter,
GZA, Ghostface Killah and Method Man,
the driving 10 Bricks (with an effective counterpoint of shrill guitar and fat horns),
and Ason Jones (with an undulating orchestral arrangement that quotes
hits of soul music).
The Alchemist's beat for Surgical Gloves (halfway between industrial
and carillon) and
Pete Rock's cracking and pulsing beat for Sonny's Missing
(with a thick hypnotic arrangement) are also outstanding.
Allah Mathematics' dynamic orchestral arrangement lifts Mean Streets into orbit (raps by Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck), whereas
About Me, produced by Dr Dre and featuring raps by Busta Rhymes,
is so soulful it seems to belong to another album.
The album often straddles away from traditional hip-hop music and
sails towards much more varied horizons:
Cold Outside sounds like a collaboration between
Van Morrison and
Black Mozart quotes Nino Rota's Theme from The Godfather;
the grandiloquent orchstral arrangement of Canal Street sounds like cerimonial Chinese music;
We Will Rob You, neurotically produced by Allah Justice and featuring
GZA, Masta Killa and Slick Rick, mocks Queen's anthem We Will Rock You;
Gihad incorporates a sort of Sicilian folk song and
New Wu incorporates a doo-wop choir;
and closer Kiss The Ring quotes Elton John's nostalgic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (but here it almost feels exuberant).
All in all, Raekwon confirms that he is second to none within the Clan.
The Wu-Tang Clan's mixtape-styled
Chamber Music (2009) sounds like a hodgepodge of occasional music.
Ghostface Killah stuck to old-fashioned soul, funk and hip-hop on his solo
Apollo Kids (2011).
Highlights include Troublemakers and Pete Rock's soul shout How You Like Me Baby (a carbon copy of his old Chunky), but the album containts too much filler, including raunchy single 2Getha Baby,
that not even the army of distinguished guests can redeem.
Raekwon's inspiration suddenly collapsed with
Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (2011).
Return Of The Wu & Friends (2010) is a mix tape by Mathematics
that uses Wu Tang Clan material from the 2000s.
Legendary Weapons (2011) is another incoherent parade of Wu Tang Clan-soundalikes, randomly assembled and randomly produced.
RZA, the brain behind the group's sound, debuted as a film director with
The Man With the Iron Fists (2012). Coincidence or not, the arrangements
of A Better Tomorrow (2014) tend to envelop the music in cinematic
atmospheres. Unfortunately the quality is still ridiculously low, save
for Ruckus in B Minor.
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