The Man With the Iron Fist is not only the best soundtrack of the year, it's one of the year's best albums overall.
Legendary Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA hasn't always had the strongest track-record when it comes to movie soundtracks. Longtime fans may remember the disappointing Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai album from way back in 2000, that not only failed to live up to the RZA's musical legacy, but also paled in comparison to its Japanese exclusive counterpart. Later RZA would score the 2006 martial arts extravaganza The Protector, and while his heart was in the right place, his composition fell flat and sounded uninspired. Things were looking bleak for RZA the composer. Shortly afterwords, though, something special happened; RZA was tapped to produce the soundtrack to the then unknown anime series, Afro Samurai. Taking everything he had learned in the past, he emerged with music that not only complemented the scenes in which he was scoring, but also offered hardcore fans dream-team match ups by bringing artist like GZA and Big Daddy Kane together for the first time. The Afro Samurai series seemingly spoke to RZA in ways that his past film projects hadn't, and after producing an equally impressive sequel soundtrack with Afro Samurai Resurrection, his past missteps were all but forgotten.
The Man With the Iron Fist soundtrack doesn't play out exactly like RZA's past works; he only has production credits on four songs here and it doesn't feature any of the actual instrumental score from the movie, though that too is available as a separate soundtrack and comes highly recommended, but you can tell he's building on his past foundations. Having personally hand-picked, or at the very least approved all of the artists that appear here, RZA brings together all of his current favorite musicians for an all-star blowout. One look at the track list reveals a staggering variety of names; Kanye West, Pharoahe Monch, and the Black Keys are but a few of the guest that appear here, and perhaps most impressively all fit rather comfortably next to each other, regardless of how different their musical stylings may be.
The majority of the production is handled by the underrated Frank Dukes, who contributes eight instrumentals so dusty, so vintage East Coast Hip Hop, that you would swear you were listening to RZA circa 1993. His production on the Wu-Tang Clan and Kool G Rap featured song, "Rivers of Blood", is a masterful take on New York Boom Bap, that both pays homage to the classic sound, and brings it in to the modern day with its quirky sound effects and off-kilter use of fuzzed out horns. Likewise, the Kanye West and RZA-produced "White Dress" features not only a brilliantly used, haunting vocal sample, but also features one of the absolute best rapping performances Kanye West has ever turned in. Later in the album RZA both produces, and raps on "Just Blowing In The Wind", sharing the mic with up-and-coming act Flatbush Zombies, and single handedly steals the show from the young mc's, proving once again that "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothin to fuck wit". "Tick, Tock" is almost guaranteed to become a favorite among the blogger/message boards crowd by bringing together the hottest mc's across various generations. Pusha T, Raekwon, and especially Joell Ortiz all offer jaw dropping verses in their own right, but it's the last-second edition of Danny Brown who absolutely steals the show, rapping, "Got the tongue of a pimp, raised by a dirty preacher / That used the church money to cop a new Beamer / Got the heart of a child raised by a prostitute / That bought his momma the rubbers when a john came through."
The hip hop music here is only part of the story though. The Man With the Iron Fist expands far outside of what we would typically associate with a rap heavy soundtrack and offers us such gems as "I Forgot To Be Your Lover", which features an absolutely pitch perfect Tre Williams singing his heart out over beautifully subdued production by Bob Parry. "Chains" features minimalist production that perfectly highlights the soulful vocals of British songbird Corinne Bailey Rae, and the somber, eerie mood the song invokes perfectly fits the overall vibe of the album. Massively under-appreciated Soul legend Mable John finally gets some well deserved recognition with the inclusion of her fantastic 1966 song, "Your Good Thing (Is About to Come to an End)", and last, but certainly not least, is "Green Is the Mountain" by Hong Kong singer Frances Yip. The song is sung entirely in Chinese, but the feelings it evokes are universal. The fact that these vintage songs sound so in place next to the new tunes is a testament to how well thought out and put together this album really is.
Really there's a song for just about any mood you may find yourself in, and while each and every track here offers a unique experience and sound, there's a certain cohesiveness that really ties it all together and makes it work. It's one of those rare albums I can play from beginning to end and not have to skip any tracks or suffer through any dull moments. It probably won't appeal to everyone as it does rely fairly heavily on the blueprint laid by East Coast hip hop, but personally I feel there's enough evolution and diversity in sound here to warrant the space on your ipod. I may have been skeptical at first, but no more. The Man With the Iron Fist is not only the best soundtrack of the year, it's one of the year's best albums overall.