Continued devotion to a musical act in its autumnal or later stages is very much a labor of love, sometimes — or oftentimes —more of the former than the latter. On a long enough timeline, every band or artist that keeps producing records inevitably risks fading into irrelevance, due to either blameless cultural apathy or simply making bad music. This is an easy distinction to make when the artist in question releases utter crap, but sometimes from the position of an adoring fan it’s impossible to see it happening except in retrospect. You realize you’re hardly a fan of the actual music anymore, but a fan of the artist’s Platonic ideal.
There may never be a better case in point of this phenomenon than the Wu-Tang Clan. In 2015 the fabled hip hop group “released” what would shortly become the world’s most expensive album, when the one and only existing copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was purchased by a wealthy pharmaceutical troll for a cool $2 million. This event understandably caused an uproar. Not all of the Clan was on board with the scheme to create a piece of art that was as literally unique and exclusive to its owner as a Renaissance painting. Auction winner Martin Shkreli, already loathed by the public for his ruthless exploitation of the laws of supply and demand as applied to vitally necessary medicine, didn’t help his chances in any popularity contests by casually floating the idea of destroying his new prize. The seething masses just wanted to hear some new Wu.
But it’s difficult to imagine such public outrage, or indeed much caring on any level, without the extraordinary circumstances of an exclusive record being snatched up by a postmodern villain. In truth the Wu-Tang Clan hasn’t released an impactful or even really relevant album in many moons, certainly since the untimely passing of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard and perhaps even earlier. A Better Tomorrow, released in late 2014, barely registered on sales charts. That album’s profound mediocrity perhaps made the Shaolin episode that much more bittersweet for Wu disciples: fans who had resigned themselves to a very bland final taste of the Clan were suddenly left wondering if there was something out there that could maybe, just maybe, recapture some of the group’s former heat.
Cut back to the present day, and it turns out Shaolin was not the final chapter after all. With little to no fanfare, the Wu-Tang Clan released a new album, The Saga Continues, in October 2017. …Except no, that’s not quite right. It’s not an official album exactly, and the artist is listed simply as “Wu Tang.” The Clan has pulled tricks like this before, as with 2009’s Chamber Music and 2011’s Legendary Weapons. Something about the release has enough members discomfited that not all have signed on to endorse it as an official Clan product. In this case, a major factor would have to be U-God’s ongoing legal battle with the RZA and co. over royalties. He doesn’t appear on the album at all, and that is enough to operate under the obviously associated but non-canonical name of “Wu Tang.”
The truncated nom de guerre is just as well, for few of the tracks on The Saga Continues include verses from more than a couple of Clan members, giving the listener the impression that this album was produced without ever once having a quorum of the Clan in the same room at the same time. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course, but one of the thrills of listening to classic Wu material is hearing how much the members feed off each other and indeed thrive on what can sometimes feel like a symbiotic competition of rapping idiosyncrasies. Such symbiosis is hardly present on this album, though it does have its moments.
Maybe every Wu-affiliated album produced in this century has been done so under the yolk of trying to recapture the ineffable Wu-Tang sound, to varying degrees of success. Producer Mathematics is a game candidate for yet another attempt, and a rightful choice having been an original Killa Bee. Indeed, it was he who designed the venerated Wu-Tang W symbol, which guest rapper Redman is quick to point out. Math understands what perhaps RZA forgot somewhere along the way: the Clan operates best when left to its own devices, rapping over a simple backbeat that never seeks to dominate the track while setting the appropriate tone and soundscape. His beats are generally unobtrusive if heavy on the strings throughout, with few missteps. And for an added boost in the quest for that old Wu sound, he throws in plenty of amusing Shaw Bros. Kung fu film skits.
When Redman shows up early to remind us of the producer’s credentials, it is his first appearance of many on the album. He has more airtime than most if not all Clan members, though it’s hard to complain when he’s clearly having fun, particularly when teaming up with his old comrade-in-arms, the Method Man. “Hood Go Bang” has them both in your face more or less dicking around, which is the ideal modus operandi for this pair. There’s a healthy helping of Meth throughout Saga as well, which is almost always a good thing except that his one solo track, “If Time Is Money (Fly Navigation)” is probably the most boring four minutes of the album, precisely because both Meth and Math seem kind of bored.
The third rapper with noticeably the most air time is Clan patriarch RZA, who in addition to rapping actual verses on actual tracks, occasionally fades in and out with a sort of “Saga Continues” suite of brief snippets, none more than a minute long. While musically joined together with a slow staccato guitar beat, his verses seem not entirely finished; on these tracks he always seems to be just warming up every time. It’s an odd effect that simultaneously lends the album a neat musical motif and confuses as to exactly what message it’s trying to convey. There are some important social commentaries in here — “The 21st century and we still gotta duck the fuckin’ coppers?” — but he never quite drives the point home. This problem is compounded on “Why Why Why”, when Bobby Digital muses over putting his “fist through the face of a racist,” and then later seems to blame a stripper for taking money from men like Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Other members show up infrequently enough that it’s exciting when they do, though the general dearth is never less conspicuous. After an opening skit, “Lesson Learn’d” begins the album in proper with one of Mathematics’ better beats and a solid verse from Inspectah Deck, who wastes no time in calling out the previous album’s owner, boasting, “My price hikin’ like the pills Martin Shkreli sell.” But that tantalizing bit of simile is all that’s to be heard from the Rebel INS except for one other verse on the album.
“If What You Say Is True” is a highlight for its variety of rappers: while Killa Beez like Capadonna and Streetlife are here, far more important are precious verses from the Clan’s secret weapon, Masta Killa, and its brain, GZA. There is also a sample of a prescient speech from the late ODB, in which he admonishes a live crowd, “Now do you understand? The only way we can stay strong is we sick together… Let me tell you what they gonna try to do… They gonna try to make black and white go against each other — which they can’t because we already havin’ a good time.” It’s hard not to smile at a message like that from Dirt McGirt.
Raekwon and Ghostface Killah both get some air time as well, but it’s not much for members of their stature and they never get to hook up on the same track, which is a loss. Not every Wu-Tang track can be a perfectly synthesized hit parade of member contributions, but it doesn’t feel like that big of an ask to demand more Clan members together on more tracks. It’s easy to see why Saga is denied canon status for that reason. The most concentrated Wu power on one track is on lead single and album highlight “People Say,” which features Meth (and the phrase “upside ya head”), Chef, Redman, the Rebel INS, Masta Killa, and another ODB sample to boot. It really gets the dopamine going, even if it could never make a fan reconsider a list of all-time Wu-Tang tracks.
But that’s awfully faint praise, and is the best and worst that can be said about this album. Little of it is actively bad, and most all of it is competent, but none of it is very memorable. It’s almost 24 years now since our souls hath been tooken through the 36 chambers of death, kids, and the simple fact is that the Clan, at some point already in the past, has entered the phase of its career in which fans are worshipping the lore and mythos more than the music itself. The Saga Continues isn’t a bad attempt at recapturing the old sound, but the Clan needs to aim higher than that if they intend to stay relevant on today’s burgeoning hip hop scene. After all, Wu-Tang is forever. 👐