Wu Tang: The Saga Continues
Mathematics sticks to the classic Wu-Tang aesthetic, beefing it up with modern techniques to create an enjoyably nostalgic experience, especially for old school fans.
Nearly a quarter century after they taught us the dangers of “C.R.E.A.M.” and revolutionized the East Coast hardcore hip-hop aesthetic, the Wu-Tang Clan need no introduction. Since 1993, RZA and company have owned the hard-hitting soul beats and intricately devised rhyme schemes that defined an era while seamlessly combining commercial (or what was once commercial) and conscious. Their influence on hip-hop and their ability to saturate the market both with group and solo efforts is nearly untouchable in the genre’s history. Even this year, members Raekwon and Masta Killa have put out records, bringing their album count for this decade alone up to 25.
Now returning for number 26, and their first group effort since the single-copy Once Upon a Time In Shaolin in 2015, RZA has turned the producing duties over to long-time collaborator and creator of the Wu-Tang “W”, DJ Mathematics. Although Math has produced a song here and there throughout their discography, this is his first time taking on an entire project -- a project RZA blessed with the title “a masterpiece". And although this release isn’t labeled as an “official” Wu-Tang Clan studio album, every member except U-God contributes here in addition to collaborators Redman, Streetlife, R-Mean, and more.
The last few Wu-Tang albums have been controversial for longtime fans and critics with RZA experimenting more production-wise as opposed to the tried-and-true formula he used throughout the ‘90s with heavy soul beats and kung-fu film samples. On The Saga Continues, Mathematics sticks to that classic aesthetic, beefing it up with modern techniques to create an enjoyably nostalgic experience, especially for old-school fans. In interviews, DJ Math cited that his only two influences in creating these tracks were the original Enter the Wu-Tang and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic 2001. The latter formed the basis for the excellent mixing that gives the traditionally murky and muddy sound of older Wu-Tang efforts a clean and modern sound. This combination pays off consistently throughout the album, creating a punchy, yet spacy atmosphere for the Clan to express their lyrical finesse.
“Lesson Learn’d” sets off the classic boastfully intimidating tone early with Redman warning on the hook, “Niggas in the streets gon’ learn / Them Wu-Tang niggas don’t play.” Inspectah Deck continues with bravado and goes right after their most famous album buyer, “My price hiking like the pills Martin Shkreli sell.” It would have been interesting to see some more jabs taken at Shkreli here or elsewhere on the album, but taking $2 million off the guy’s hands is perhaps victory enough. “Fast and Furious” follows in the same vein highlighted by a deep, moving bass line and Raekwon telling a paranoid story of doing a cocaine deal and getting busted by undercover feds.
While it’s good to hear from all the Wu members throughout the album, it’s Method Man that stars again and again on this offering. His internal rhyme schemes and cool flow sound as good now as they ever have. He starts “If Time Is Money” by saying, “Rhyme is tricky,” which he then seemingly debunks by following: “Who kinda miss me can kindly miss me / You kinda iffy / Don’t know the hist’ry? / I’m from the city of stop and frisk me / The cops is jiggy / They spot the blickey then try and get me.” And on single “People Say”, he puts together perhaps the best verse of the album, beginning, “Until my heart turns cold / I’m a product of the block / We used to cook the product in the pot / Add soda, turn the product into rock / It’s in my DNA, you see it started with my pops / In his heyday he prolly put your father in the box / In my heyday, I prolly put the product in my sock / Ain’t no vacay, the props become a problem when it’s hot.” This type of wordplay and dedication to the rhyme is what makes Meth and much of the Wu great. And it’s why studies of rappers’ vocabulary size have found many of the group members near the top.
But despite the excellent lyricism and genius flow, there are still hiccups. Most notably, these come from the Wu’s collaborators. On “G’d Up”, R-Mean comes up with the inexcusably bad “Homie we focused / My camp Auschwitz with the concentration.” Equally bad is Sean Price’s verse clincher on “Pearl Harbor”: “Pa, I’m the greatest of all time / How should we forget the latest with Alzheim’s?” Even the group’s members have some missteps, like Ghostface on the same track creating wordplay with gynecology and “gun-ecology”, bragging, “Shoot your old lady in her privacy.” And on the supposedly tender “My Only One”, RZA really brings the romance: “She’s the type who likes sex over masturbation / And tonight, I’m gearing up full ejaculation.” Unfortunately, cringe lines like these are just as memorable as anything substantial Wu-Tang puts together on Saga Continues, making it spotty at the least.
That’s not to say there aren’t any good takeaways here. The “Family” skit features a speech by author Shahrazad Ali speaking to the need for strong family units in the African-American community to build the community. Following up is the heartfelt “Why Why Why” featuring singer Swnkah and RZA dropping heavy bars about police brutality, addiction, and women who end up stripping to survive. Tracks like this are some of the most important in the hip-hop genre as they serve to portray the hardships of life, either therapeutically for those to whom it may relate, or else empathetically for those who can’t even imagine what those life experiences are like. And while it doesn’t make lazy or tasteless choices elsewhere excusable, it reminds us why somebody like Wu-Tang has been around for so long and impacted the hip-hop community in a nearly infinite capacity.