The Wu-Tang Clan aren't only one of the most innovative hip-hop groups of the last decade, they're a corporate entity, albeit one that originally arose as an underground phenomenon. For their fans, "Wu-Tang" has become a name brand, a stamp of approval used to ensure that certain aesthetic elements will be present: dark, rough beats matched with strings and piano and tag-team, stream-of-consciousness rapping from an army of MCs who share a habit for kung-fu references, mysticism and strong-headedness.
While the Wu-Tang Clan has just three albums to its name, the discographical tree is nearly endless, with solo albums, side projects and guest appearances galore. Wu-Chronicles Chapter II is the second album which combs through that mess of releases and picks out a handful of tracks at random. Chapter II includes tracks from albums by members of the Wu, albums by other hip-hop artists which had guest spots by Wu-Tang members, soundtrack albums and compilation albums, plus six completely unreleased tracks. To a certain extent, this sort of album is just another way to keep the Wu-Tang name out there in the public mind. But more than that, it's a treat for fans, a special mix of Wu-Tang cuts rare and not-so-rare. It's clear that this album isn't meant as an introduction to the Wu, and isn't likely to climb the Billboard charts -- instead it's a gift to the obsessed fan, of which the Wu have legions.
Most of the central Wu-Tang members are featured on Chapter II, with the notable exceptions of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. There's also an array of Wu-Tang protégés and tracks which pair other hip-hop artists with MCs from the Wu. This mix gives the album a duality which is both a drawback and a strength. The tracks are drawn from such a variety of sources that there's bound to be something new here for even the most diehard fans. Yet that same variety leads to an inconsistency in feel, not to mention an odd balance of talent. Chapter II includes appearances by many unique, ultra-talented artists, but it also features numerous MCs who are routine, awkward and forgettable.
It's an unfortunate fact that the best tracks here are the ones fans are most likely to have already. The album kicks off with Gangstarr's classic "Above the Clouds", featuring a verse from Inspectah Deck, and also includes well-known collaborations like "Left and Right", from D'Angelo featuring Method Man & Redman, and "Hard to Kill", by Spice 1 and Method Man. There's also tracks from Wu-Tang-related albums that most fans likely own, like "Hip-Hop Fury" from GZA/Genius' outstanding Beneath the Surface, "N.Y.C. Everything" from the first RZA/Bobby Digital album, and "Dangerous Mindz", from the Gravediggaz' second album. Most of these tracks are no doubt already in most hip-hop fans' collections, yet it's hard to complain about their inclusion, as they stand far above most of the material on Chapter II.
While too much of the rest of the album features less-than stellar members of the Wu family like Shyheim and U-God, there's some real gems here. "Got's Like Come on Thru" matches the off-kilter silliness of Buddha Monk, Ol' Dirty Bastard and Drunken Dragon with classical-style guitar to great effect, and "Three Amigos (If It's On)" by King Just featuring Method Man and Sic kicks off with a killer verse by Method Man and has funky, energetic production. There's also a short but noteworthy collaboration between Killah Priest and the innovative DJ Spooky ("Catechism"), GZA's remix of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Greyhound" from that band's remixes EP and an unreleased freestyle by GZA and Masta Killa, recorded on King Tech and Sway's Wake Up Show.
Most music fans, except those with gold-lined pockets, will find it hard to keep up with the Wu-Tang Clan. Not only does their "family" include too many members to keep track of, but many of those artists seem to show up everywhere you look. Though Wu-Chronicles Chapter II isn't wholly cohesive or successful as an album, it does serve the purpose of giving fans numerous hard-to-find tracks at once. It isn't anywhere near essential, but if you've been pondering whether to buy The Big Hit soundtrack just for the one Wu-related track on it, this might be the right album for you.