It’s interesting to me how many of the basic arguments for and against Apollo Kids can be made for Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang as well. If Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… 2 was largely an apology for Raekwon’s previous two solo efforts, Shaolin is Raekwon doing those two albums properly. Like Apollo Kids, it’s a very simple, straightforward listen. The production at times feels very reminiscent of truly old-school Wu-Tang (“Butter Knives”), not just the Iron Flag sort of sound most imitators go for today. And there are also tracks like “Snake Pond” from newcomer Selasi that seem to be coming from a very forward-thinking sort of place. It also fits Raekwon’s storytelling tendencies perfectly, and allows him ample atmosphere for laying out one of his typically coded murder mysteries.
Unfortunately, there are many simple, common mistakes made with today’s hip-hop albums that crop up throughout Shaolin. The album doesn’t necessarily come across as a letdown, but it is consistently less surprising or unique than its predecessor. Busta Rhymes basically brings Nicki Minaj to the streets, DJ Khalil continues to make questionable production choices—“Rock N Roll”, featuring Ghostface and a Jim Jones proves he’s simply better at sounding right on ugly beats—in pursuit of a new sound.
A random international vocalist (in this case Estelle, on the Parappa the Rapper-titled “Chop Chop Ninja”) gets invited to sing a hook through label connections and just distracts everyone from the fact Inspectah Deck came in on his A game, nearly ruining the song. And those with their ears to the streets might recognize Nas’ “Rich & Black” verse is from a Sha Stimuli track in 2009, thus automatically disqualifying the song as an heir to the immaculate “Verbal Intercourse” no matter its hotness.
Another thing that makes “Rock N Roll” stick out like a sore thumb, but helps the album as a whole, is the DOOM-like arrangement of the entire album. Songs rarely extend beyond three minutes (“Rock N Roll” nearly clocks six, and is the only track longer than four-and-a-half) and choruses are generally de-emphasized if not outright ignored. It allows listeners to get exactly what they came for—Raekwon’s blunted, effortless delivery—pretty much as often as possible.
Raekwon doesn’t sound as polished here as he does on the Cuban Linx LP, as he often allows his guests to outshine him and sometimes seems to be parodying either himself or Cam’ron. But as the track times are so short, it’s his energy that becomes the emphasis of the record. And when he really gets on a roll like “Last Trip to Scotland”, “Molasses”, “Snake Pond” or “Masters Of Our Fate”, it’s easy to forget that you were a little bored a moment ago. Especially when you’re only bored relative to Raekwon’s usual high standard. Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang might not be an album that sinks its teeth in, but it’s definitely breezy, entertaining and another worthy addition to Wu-Tang’s ever-strengthening third or fourth wind.