Leading into the summer of '95 (or better known as Hip Hop's second golden era), not only is the Wu's well revered debut still pumping out of whips at every turn, new slang is adopted to the greater lexicon and indubitably cemented as a cultural classic. The debuts from Meth & ODB soon followed, proving inescapable on various Billboard charts, in the streets, and in the hearts and minds of the populace. Now the Chef Shallah Raekwon is up to bat with 18 tracks, along with Ghostface Killah as his co-star.
This body of work is obviously special for numerous reasons. The eye catching hue of the cassette is an obvious one. It also showcases the clan at the start of their creative peak and lyrical powers. RZA's "five year plan" as he laid out to the clan is proving to be ingenious in how well the plan has been executed by that point. The Abbott (RZA) is still at the helm, providing the album's soundscape from start to finish, leaving the listener with dozens of 60's to 70's soul classics to research.
Meanwhile, just about every member (with the exception of the unpredictable Dirty) gets a feature, even the silent assassin Masta Killa has two memorable features. Each track plays together similarly to reading a good novel (audiobook), one track flowing seamlessly into the next, no fillers or a wasted millisecond among the 73 minute running time.
Rae and Ghost reference on many occasions the beginning of the writing process taking place when the pair took a trip to Barbados. After receiving unfavorable treatment on the island, they returned back to American shores in Miami within days to continue writing and recording.
"Ice Cream" is one of the endless anthems of the summer. Though released as a single a month after the album release, it's presence is certainly felt as one of the most standout tracks of the season. The video is directed by "Video Music Box" creator Ralph McDaniels with locations at iconic venues of NYC like Coliseum Mall in Jamaica, Queens and Albee Square in Brooklyn (as well as a cameo from the not yet known Alicia Keys as one of the Ice Cream girls). The world is introduced to Cappadonna as the clan's informal tenth member with an unforgettable verse in appreciation of the feminine form.
"Incarcerated Scarfaces" is one for the brothers locked behind the wall, like many tracks in the lengthy Wu catalogue that grabs an unprotected neck within it's first few (milli)seconds. Facial expressions quickly turn grim, heads nod and bodies tend to react aggressively to this hi-hat friendly element of boom bap.
"Verbal Intercourse", samples "If You Think It (You May As Well Do It)" by The Emotions. Nas Escobar, the first guest appearance of a non Wu member is first at bat: "Through the lights, camera, actions, glamour, glitter and gold, I unfold the scroll, plant seeds to stampede the globe." As a result of the verse, it is anointed as a Source magazine Hip Hop quotable and widely regarded as one of the genre's most memorable verses ever.
Tracks 10-14 (which includes "Intercourse") is an underrated portion of the album for yours truly with a string of non-single deep cuts. "Ice Water" gives us the ultra rare for Hip-Hop Bing Crosby sample ahhing repeatedly as the backdrop of the chorusless offensive attack; "Glaciers Of Ice", sonically similar to the theme of "Legend of Zelda", another lyrical X and O's that would rival the famed triangle offense of the Chicago Bulls dynasty; "Wisdom Body" is Ghost's first ever solo offering, sending his best game at a potential love interest; "Spot Rusherz" concludes this section, is one of only four tracks on the whole album featuring Rae solo, intricately outlining a home invasion of a rival dealer after some scheming and a chance encounter. This track also begins with a rare Wu recording earlier in the year of the malt liquor St. Ides advert. 25 years later, many Wu aficianados still wonder where the full length version is - hopefully not one of the DAT's damaged by that flood in RZA's basement.
"Proceed with caution as you enter the symphony,
Degrees of pulse will increase intensely" - Masta Killa
"Can It Be All So Simple Remix" is a slightly revised version of it's "36 Chambers" original. Back then, if you were an audio fiend consuming via cassette/vinyl, this concluded the first half of the album. "Heaven & Hell" is of a similar, somber, nostalgic tone. All three tracks represent a linear, deeply emotional thought of the trials and tribulations of NYC life. Ghost's dedication to his younger brother, who suffered from muscular dystrophy perfectly places a bow on the latter track. This serves as a canvas for further exploration into a more vulnerable and personal side for his track "All That I Got Is You", that would come a year later.
"Wu-Gambinos" displays the next phase of the Wu collective and is arguably the best Wu solo track that features at least half of it's members. It is the bridge between the "36 Chambers" & "Wu-Tang Forever", the latter would arrive two summers later. Systems are fractured by the killa tactics, all 206 bones in the human body are impacted by the attack of the deadly lyrical swords. All these years later, I am still (happily) overwhelmed by such maneuvers.
"North Star (Jewels)" bookends the album with Popa Wu and Rae building on the latter's progression from a "crumb snatching" kid of Park Hill, Staten Island to the being (God) he and the crew would eventually become via the Nation of the Gods and Earths 5% lessons. This is Popa Wu's first of numerous appearances on a Wu recording, leaving some guidance (jewels) for Raekwon and the listeners, hence "North Star".
With an album that is distinctly known as the Purple Tape, the bar for albums are further raised, very few albums that followed it could match it's creativity, depth & significance. The best news is that the fun does not stop when the album closes, with the Genius, Ghost & a double feature from the Wu on the way in the very near future. The remainder of the 90's are firmly set.