Living among ghosts of MCs past, remembering every harsh word a critic ever uttered, Method Man races to prove his relevance.
Method Man is the Wu-Tang Clan's celebrity, the one who has transcended being 'just a musician' to become a larger-than-life pop-culture personality: actor, comedian, all-around goofball. In other words, it's possible to know who he is without having heard of the Wu-Tang Clan. Yet throughout it all -- through Meth N' Red trying to be the next Cheech N' Chong, through guest turns on an assortment of TV crime shows, through Soul Plane even -- he's retained his talent as a lyrical assassin, a "one-shot killer", as he puts it on his new album. On guest appearances, and on Wu-Tang albums, he has a tendency to come onto a track and kill with just one verse, or with a hook used for the chorus. It's partly his husky, lispy voice, how good it sounds coming between less sonically distinctive voices. And it has a lot to do with his tight, explosive rhyming style. A lengthy list could be made of those moments when he enters a track and instantly destroys.
But building one damaging verse is a different thing than creating an album, or even a song. And Method Man's eternally struggled in that regard. His uneven debut album Tical (1994) seems like a classic compared to what's come after it. Tical 2000: Judgement Day (1998) went futuristic in small moments, but its sprawl left it weak overall. Tical 0: The Prequel (2004) was the sound of serious creative floundering, trying to find something to grasp onto. It's telling that his most solid album was Blackout! (1999), a quickly recorded tag-team collaboration with Redman. It was the album he spent the least time thinking about, one where he had a partner to play off, and one where a party-vibe stood as a skeleton framework making other concepts unnecessary, letting Method Man stay loose and focus on what he excels at: pure rhyming.
His new album 4:21... The Day After similarly has one overarching framework that helps Method Man focus his energy in one direction. Essentially, the criticism of his previous albums has gotten under his skin, woken him up. The album title references the day after National Weed Smoking Day, the inference being that Meth is experiencing a moment of clarity after the party's ended. From that point of clarity, he's launching a defensive attack against all haters. The lyrical slant of nearly the entire album is summarized by this lyric: "M-E-T to the H-O-D / why motherfuckers wanna hate on me?" Wu-Tang introduced Meth with a similar spell-out technique back in the day, on the playful classic " Method Man". There's nothing playful about his demeanor this time around, but in reactionary mode he's found the energy that his last album lacked.
The album's "Intro" puts us at a marijuana rally. No surprise there, but the samples are not of someone goofin' while high, but of someone speaking soberly, seriously about drug legalization. That's the first clue that Method Man's on a more serious trip here. The second clue is when he smashes into the track, on fire: "Yo stop look and listen / guess who coming up / and y'all was dumb enough to think that Method's number's up." He's in this mode for virtually the whole album: spitting strong and hard, turning the attention to his gift for gab while challenging anyone who disagrees with his talent.
A beef with critics isn't a visionary hook to hang an album on, but it seems to have lit a fire in Meth which helped him sharpen his pen and tighten his songs to their essentials. Many of the hooks used as choruses are quite weak and repetitive, often a problem with MCs who are pure rhymers first, and song-constructors second (see: KRS-One). But when the verses and music are on-point enough, which here they mostly are, that flaw is of lesser importance.
Throughout 4:21 there's guest MCs and singers around -- including Wu compadres like the RZA, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Streetlife, and LA the Darkman -- but Method Man never uses them as props to overwhelm, and they never threaten to overwhelm him either. Instead they're support, a complementary part of the landscape. Perhaps more important are the less vocal guests, the producers. The musical palette they present is brighter in tone than you'd expect for an MC so angry this time. It's not perfect, there's some simplistic pop-oriented moments and muddy, unconvincing attempts at roughness. But there's also plenty of moments of true vision.
Pop-hitmaker Scott Storch's keyboard-heavy track for "Is it Me" is both light-as-air and slightly ominous, an interesting combination for Meth to express venom over. For "Walk On" (featuring Redman) young producer Versatile uses a sample familiar to Wu fans - Isaac Hayes' "Walk on By", used more literally for a track on The W -- and creates a slamming rock track from it. On four tracks Erick Sermon keeps his production subtle but effective, with a melodic bounce. The RZA is present as producer for four tracks as well, and while he stays away from the typical tropes of his style, he keeps things consistently intriguing. From the strange lazer-beam sound haunting "4:20" to the dense but airy collage of "The Glide", he shows why he's a master of sound combinations and placement, a producer among producers. On "Presidential MCs" he offers not just a martial-arts haunted-house mood, supported by crisp drums, but also a standout verse of his own, a series of particularly blunted non-sequitors that makes his presence welcome twice over.
Method Man's desire to make each album an epic does stretch 4:21 thin in places -- with vacuous skits, so-so love ballads (a sign he's still aware that his biggest hit was a duet with an R&B singer), and a weak shopping-list exercise ("Got to Have It") -- but the extent of it isn't devastating. And some of that musical variety actually strengthens the album. When what he's saying -- step off, critics -- is the same song-to-song, variety makes that easier to stomach. "Say", featuring Lauryn Hill, bears the same message as most of the other songs, but the folk-reggae mood and Hill's brief yet expressively sung hook (a slice of Bob Marley's "So Much Things to Say") give it a different emotional tenor, making it moving even when his defensive stance is beginning to feel tired.
Behind all his defensiveness, though, lurk ghosts of the past. Meth and his guests are continually referencing the deceased giants of hip-hop - the Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, 2Pac, Ol Dirty Bastard. Fat Joe even pairs Pun and B.I.G. references with 9/11 awareness: "you know New York is dying after all the shit we been through." Couple the fallen-giant references with a constant framing of Wu-Tang as kings who have been deposed from power, with the ever-present hope that NYC can capture hip-hop fans' attention back from the South (again, Fat Joe: "me and Meth bringing back New York!"), with an after-death guest verse from ODB (and, later in the album, Meth's lyric "NYC is all I see / O-D-B nigga R-I-P"), and with the appearance of the mostly-disappeared-from-public-eye Lauryn Hill, and the album gains a overall theme of loss. There's a sadness behind Method Man's bitter counter-attack, an awareness of the lurking presence of death. "When death calls I'm good / I got caller ID," he jokes. He's rhyming to prove his vitality, to keep one foot in front of death. And is the race against death all that different from the race against irrelevance, the race to maintain a fanbase and street cred in the quick-turnover world of popular culture?