Oh, it kicks off something lovely, no doubt. On the blade-concise “Pit Bull Fights”, over a frenetic bassline and itchy trigger horns, the Chef stakes a new claim, same as the old—wicked wordplay about the world the way it is, or at least as it was, or at least as he imagines it—“Elevators broken, pissy stairwells and shells.” And in it he’s still the simultaneously cagey and raging mobster of “Cuban Linx”, the mobbed-up model everyone from Fat Joe to Tony Soprano now big ups whether they admit it or not: “The neighbourhood loved and feared him. He organized a powerful elite with a cold heart and a hot hand.” (From the awkward intro, not awkward in a Wu-Tang sort of way, just awkward in a poorly acted sort of way, like most of the skits here). Then Havoc brings it, subtle “Linx” homage and all (“Drink ‘till you curled / On the floor like a newborn baby, god. / ‘You mean is he dead? What kinda shit is leakin’ out of his head?), and Rae backs him up (“I’ll chop meat outcha face daddy gladly, Magli’s on.”) on “King of Kings”, which is both so full of Sino-Staxian swing and so all around excellent it’s pretty shocking to find out RZA had nothing to do with it—or, for that matter, with anything else on this album.
And when “Missing Watch” hits, you’ll be ready to bid RZA a fun 80 days around the world. The production is by the Mizza, whose uncomfortably evocative name may ultimately prove an albatross, if the slightly derivative but utterly devastating work he does here is any indication. Like a hardhead RJD2, Mizza weaves it beautiful and infectious, chickenscratch to dusty drums, the kind of thing that’s so nice he can get away with doing little more than drop the loop. And this sublime loop is in service of some totally classic work by Chef and Ghostface, along with an unidentified member of the Icewater, Inc. crew that Raekwon is putting on here. From the opening inquiry (“Yo son you got my shit? Na son, I ain’t got your shit.”) the story that you’ve always wanted to hear unfolds—the story about just how quickly things can move when you wear jewelry worth more than a luxury car. The writing is amazing, characters move in and out with Rae (“Rubbin’ on my ski hat, oh shit / I’m tired and I’m stressed, hungry and I’m vexed.”) orchestrating the unapologetic shakedown of a whole club full of somewhat uncooperative suspects. Unreasoning suspicion mounts, P.A.s are commandeered (“We got announcements we want y’all to hear / We just lost about a mansion in here!”), and kids make the mistake of talking back. In the inglorious denouement, chains get run, shots get licked, Ghostface spits a verse that’s great even though it’s not his best (“Dude put the toast to his throat / We brought the noise like we’re here to promote.”) and in the end we’ve got a flawless narrative and what has to be the best Wu-Tang track of the last three years.
Unfortunately, it’s the peak of The Lex Diamond Story, which from there loses focus and discipline quickly. “All Over Again” is that certain sign of decline, the retrospective of past successes, with the added point against it of perpetuating the “chipmunk vocal” micro-trend. Trust me, all you producers, if Kanye West can only make a technique barely listenable, nobody else should even fuck with it (Eminem, I’m looking in your direction). “Clientelle Kid”, with its gosepelesque hook and ultra-clean track, would’ve made a great R. Kelly track, but carries little weight on behalf of real rap, even with Ghostface in crazed torturer, 7th Chamber mode (“Keep you alive, blowtorch on your balls”). Not too long after that, we hit the awkward, slow, momentum-sapping “Restaurant Skit”, a set piece full of strained silences that I guess are supposed to show how laconically hard-knock the principals are, but end up giving the impression that noone knows what they’re supposed to say next.
There are plenty of strong tracks on the rest of the disc, and the most pleasant surprise is the strong work put in by Ice Water on “Robbery”, delivering an array of truly nice lines: “I cock and aim / Miss you, pop ya dame,” and “It’s a new year bitch, and I’m takin’ over… if rap don’t work, it’s back to that baking soda.” In case you haven’t noticed, Raekwon is very much following in his own footsteps here, and Ice Water are doing the same. But there are very few weak moments on the album (notably “Ice Cream Part II”, and also “The Hood”, though as a token R&B track, it doesn’t really count), and a few really strong ones, including the stripped-down, funky “Musketeers of Pig Alley”, with top-notch rhymes Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck, perhaps the two Wu members who are both still hungry and still skilled.
As much as it’s disappointing to see yet another member of the Wu marching in place, at least we got a good album out of it. This isn’t quite the return to form that we’re all waiting for (I think Ghostface’s upcoming album is our last hope for that), and it’s about five songs and two skits too long, but it’s thoroughly satisfying, and with a more concise mix it would be as worthy an addition to the Wu-Tang legacy as anything since Supreme Clientele. As is, it’s got its ups and downs, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to any die-hard Wu-Tang devotee. Where my killa tape at?