For most people, January 1 is a day usually spent in a hungover, football-inundated daze. Pursuits like music appreciation, physical exercise, and sustained cogitation are put off in favor of chugging Gatorade, yawning, and flipping channels. But this year, the Wu-Tang Clan was in town, for the first time since the group’s 2006 reunion tour, and so plenty of DC rap-heads, though not enough to produce a sell-out, were willing to extract themselves from the generalized torpor to give the Staten Island-bred lyrical swordsman a hardy capital-city welcome.
And what did these enthusiastic albeit sluggish fans receive in return? A performance by a group of rappers who appeared to be as hungover and out of it as their audience, who started out with a burst of energy but began to fizzle nearly five minutes afterwards, who ran through their catalogue of hits with the kind of limp boredom one might expect from a classic-rock casino act or a drowned-in-booze lounge singer whose liver is a few dozen cocktails away from going kaput.
1 Jan 2009: 9:30 Club Washington, DC
With only two out of nine members absent—the perennially A.W.O.L. Method Man and the brilliant if mild-mannered GZA—one could hardly have predicted the disappointment to come. Indeed, the opening barrage of “Da Mystery of Chessboxin”, with emcees U-God, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, RZA, Ghostface Killah, Mastah Killah, and Cappadonna entering the stage one verse at a time, sent sparks of awed appreciation buzzing through the synapses. Once the entire group was on stage, its singular power was diagrammed perfectly: A swarm of rappers, each one uniquely bizarre and yet somehow spun from the same intercontinental, otherworldly cloth. Outside of the “Triumph” video, Wu-Tang Clan have always existed for me more as aural entities rather than visual ones, so it was thrilling to see the poetic personas embodied. Masta Killah was appropriately shadowy and stiff, Raekwon’s eyes were glazed over, Ghostface was decked in a bright-red jacket, a golden chain, and a skull cap worn above the ears like a crown, RZA was tall and vampiric, U-God was short.
But as the fanboy goosebumps receded, and the performers settled into their jobs, the excitement in the room began to dissipate slowly and steadily. In contrast to rappers like Kanye West, Jay Z, and Lil Wayne, who in addition to experimenting with live instrumentation have reduced the microphone dominance of hype men and trained themselves to rap as ably live as on record, the Wu-Tang Clan perform with a single DJ (Mathematics, at the helm of a poorly sounding speaker system, admittedly not the group’s fault) and make the end of each line nearly unrecognizable due to everyone on stage chiming in so as to save the featured emcee a breath. Granted, this has been the preferred approach at rap concerts for years, but to see an act like the Wu-Tang, known for intricate vocabulary and production geared toward showcasing the voices of its emcees, treat its language so carelessly was a true shame. It is not reductive but summative to say that most of the concert was muddled beats and hard to understand voices. If one wasn’t intimately familiar with the group’s lyrics previous to the show, the words flew right over the head.
The set list was cleverly frontloaded with tracks from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which may have encouraged plenty of audience shout-alongs, but it also underscored the antique nature of the proceedings. Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, and Cappadonna deserve due praise for keeping admirable if inconsistent energy levels while their colleagues appeared less than fully committed. Deck’s full-throttling of his verse from “Bring Da Ruckus”, Raekwon’s hood bildungsroman on “C.R.E.A.M.”, Cappadonna’s general nuttiness and tendency for rapping past his cue and turning songs into a cappella freestyles—these were high points, yes, but high points that were nevertheless part of a losing effort.
Ghostface’s presence was so perfunctory and uninspired that he may as well have not shown up. Most of what he did was just walk around the back of the crowded stage and scratch his scalp absentmindedly. When RZA forced everyone into a too-long rendition of his “You Can’t Stop Me Now”, a sing-songy snoozer off his most recent Bobby Digital LP, the disgust of Ghostface, who along with Raekwon famously bemoaned the production decisions on 8 Diagrams as the fumblings of a “hip-hop hippy,” was all too evident. Ghostface did have his own chance to sing—over a drippy O’Jays sample, about how nice it was to have the family all together, and much more of a joke than RZA’s overly serious ego-trip—but it was small consolation for a setlist without a single song from his solo oeuvre.
The Clan’s song selection warrants further quibbling: Although Ghostface was in attendance, and there were no solo Ghostface songs performed, Method Man and GZA were not in attendance, and yet there were Method Man and GZA solo songs performed. “Clan in the Front”, “Duel of the Iron Mic”, and “Method Man” are all classics, but they barely exist when removed from the rappers who first performed them: No one needed to hear Raekwon spell out “M-E-T-H-O-D—Man.” And speaking as someone who found 8 Diagrams to be a generally rewarding excursion into the hazier realms of RZA’s jazz-rock ambitions, the Wu’s latest album was not represented enough here either. Watching the bewildered responses to “The Heart Gently Weeps” would have at least been unusual for a rap concert.
After an obligatory ODB tribute, in which a couple of under-matched kin of the late great Russell Jones struggled through a medley of famous ODB verses, “Triumph” was exhumed to significant fanfare, as if the song were Wu-Tang’s own “Stairway to Heaven”. That a song with no chorus and an ethereal, impressionistic backbeat has become such an anthem speaks volumes about Wu-Tang’s unique lyrical flair, and it was received with appropriate adulation. But the tune drained the already listless rappers of whatever energy was remaining. The rest of the show could best be described as a petering out. Ghostface left the stage a good ten minutes before the rest of the Clan (instead of waving goodbye, he appeared to shrug, but maybe I am projecting). After what appeared to be technical problems in Mathematics’ setup, the concert devolved into an impromptu freestyle competition involving various nobodies from the Clan’s entourage as well as enterprising locals who somehow made their way on stage. RZA was the only Wu-Tang member to watch more than a couple of the amateurs go at it, and after he left the stage, there was a general mood among of the audience of wait, that’s it? I have never seen a concert end so inconclusively, and yet I was glad that the thing was finally over.