Reviews

Wu-Tang Clan: Legend of the Wu-Tang: The Videos [DVD]

The Wu's particular virtues are such that the music video format has never made for a comfortable fit.

Wu-Tang Clan

Legend of the Wu-Tang: The Videos

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: Columbia
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2006-06-13
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

After a decade and change of turbulence and dirty grandeur, the strange, unpredictable entity known as the Wu-Tang Clan is finally coming to an end. The writing was on the wall as early as 2004, with the premature but by no means surprising death of the Old Dirty Bastard following a period of imprisonment. The Wu had already been drifting apart for many years prior to this death: with nine members and various associates all involved in relatively successful solo careers, the group had been torn by conflicting priorities for years. After 1997's massively baroque Wu-Tang Forever, the group remained separate until 2000's The W. The latter album was notable, aside from a few choice cuts, for its overall lack of focus; 2001's Iron Flag was a little better, but by then it was obvious to all that the bloom was off the rose. The members of the Wu-Tang collective were all still capable of producing good music (some moreso than others, it must be admitted), but the need to do so as a group was becoming less and less pressing as time wore on.

The Wu's particular virtues are such that the music video format has never made for a comfortable fit. The videos on display in Legend of the Wu-Tang are of strictly secondary importance in any consideration of the group's output. As compared to the video work of similarly influential artists such as the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and Eminem, the Wu-Tang Clan's videography seems positively emaciated. But this only makes sense: listening to the Wu-Tang Clan requires active listening in a fashion that seems disconcertingly at odds with the very idea of music videos. The appeal at the center of the Wu-Tang cosmos is not that of a lifestyle or an attitude but an imposing mythology built around the disparate, sometimes contradictory styles and preoccupations of nine distinctive MCs. There's a density to the Wu-Tang Clan's music that simply can't be compared to anything else. Watching these videos, seeing the Clan lip-sync the words to their tracks, it seems to be as much of a distraction as anything else. The world created by this music is complete unto itself, and the drab dimensions of reality simply can't compete with these lyrical flights of fancy.

Almost half of the videos featured here are culled from the group's debut album, 1993's Return to the 36 Chambers. This only makes sense, considering that that album remains the group's finest moment, the origin point from which all their subsequent achievements descend. The videos for these early tracks are, like the music itself, rough around the edges. Obviously produced with minimal budgets and an absence of special-effects, they take advantage of the blasted urban landscapes of inner-city New York (particularly the group's stronghold of Staten Island) to evoke the same kind of distressed decay prevalent in the tortured soul samples of the RZA's beats. The video for "C.R.E.A.M.", probably the most well-known video from their early period, is probably also the best in this regard: the grainy DIY video footage of packed urban slums and criminal corruption is an evocative corollary to the music's twisted ethical minefield. The rest of the early videos are essentially of a piece, with few notable changes in scenery or narrative: you've got the various Clan members skulking around somewhere or other, looking vaguely menacing and distinctly dissatisfied.

Ironically, the same attributes that made Return to the 36 Chambers such a potent statement also signaled the group's inevitable decline. Although more attention is paid to the mythical and fantastic elements of the Wu-Tang cosmology, there's also an essential element of morality at work in their early material. One of the reasons that the horror and despair of the group's debut was so potent is that it was placed in a firm ethical context that places the material sharply at odds with the work of many similarly explicit rappers. After their debut, the group had two options: they could either move forward from the rhetorical foundation of their debut to fully refute the nihilistic impulse, or they could simply continue to do more of the same, albeit on a bigger budget. They chose the latter. Wu-Tang Forever presented the Wu on a much larger stage, almost as deities. In the four years between albums the group had separated, launched solo careers and each achieved some degree of individual success in the music industry. Their world had changed substantially, and the materialistic temptation that had hovered around them on their debut had fully materialized on their sophomore effort.

Appropriately, the video for "It's Yourz" presents the Wu in the context of the kind of Bachannal that had already become cliché in 1997 -- but remains irresistible, to judge by the persistent lionization of mercantile pursuits in modern hip-hop. Whereas the original refrain of "Cash rules everything around me" had been unmistakably pessimistic, the intervening four years had made them wealthy celebrities -- cash continued to rule, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing if they didn't have to hustle for it. Accordingly, the group's best video (and one of the most distinctively odd videos of all time), "Triumph", takes the group out of the decaying context of "C.R.E.A.M." and recasts them as world-conquering super-heroes running rampant across Manhattan. The video, directed by Rush Hour and X-Men 3 auteur Brett Ratner, displays a distinctive, weirdly disjointed visual style that presents the Clan's outré fantasies in the best possible light. Unfortunately, the video displays a much sharper and infinitely more intriguing visual style than any of Ratner's subsequent feature film efforts.

After Wu-Tang Forever, the group's music began a noticeable decline in overall quality. As each of the Clan members continued to record independently (except, I should probably mention, Masta Killa, who held out on releasing a solo album until 2004), it became increasingly evident that they were losing any cohesion. Wu-Tang Forever, while definitely overlong and at times bloated, still felt like a definite statement from the group, but everything released since then has carried the damning air of inconsequence. Individual group members were obviously holding their best material for their solo albums -- and the best members had advanced in their careers to the point where their evolving styles seemed increasingly at-odds with the very idea of being in a group. Ghostface Killa extravagant, bizarre imagery and long-form storytelling doesn't really fit in on a posse cut any more than the ODB's free-association rambling. Likewise, the RZA's increasingly high-minded production seemed more at home on conceptual vehicles like the Bobby Digital albums than on mainstream hip-hop records.

The videos produced from The W and Iron Flag are a mixed bag. Posse cuts like "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)" and "Uzi (Pinky Ring)" are notable only for being absolutely uninteresting. Both feature a bunch of people standing around and rapping -- much like every other rap video ever produced. "Gravel Pit" is just plain weird, putting the Clan into a three-dimensional Flintstones prehistory, complete with dancing cavewomen and dinosaurs. And then the caveman ninjas show up for no discernible reason, which should tell you about everything you need to know.

But the group could still pack a wallop when they wanted. "I Can't Go to Sleep", built off a sample from Isaac Hayes' cover of Bacharach & David's "Walk On", is probably the highlight of The W, and the video is similarly interesting, built around weird horror movie imagery and surprisingly affecting performances from the RZA and Ghostface. "I Can't Go To Sleep" was a powerful reminder of the group's potency, but it also served as an unwilling condemnation of the group's recent output: if they were still capable of putting out strong tracks like these, why weren't they doing it more often?

The answer, alas, is that there is simply no way a group like the Wu-Tang Clan could survive in the long term. As opposed to a traditional rock or pop outfit, wherein the solo prospects of drummers, bassists and flugelhorn players have traditionally been dicey, every MC in the Wu could conceivably fly solo without any help from their peers. As they advanced and grew more confident in their individual careers, the incentive to remain tied to the group dwindled. It's telling to watch the promotional documentary included on the DVD, "Enter the Wu-Tang", recorded in 1994 after the release of their first album. The group appears together as a group, and they are united by their common goals and ambitions. In performance clips, they appear focused and friendly. (It's especially disconcerting to see interview footage of ODB, ten years before his death, explaining how the Old Dirty Bastard was conceived as a persona to vent his worst impulses -- of course, those same worst impulses would eventually consume him.)

In addition to the aforementioned 1994 film, the only other bonus on the disc is the music video for Masta Killa's "Old Man", included here because it contains the ODB's last filmed performance. It would have been flat-out impossible to produce a comprehensive anthology of all the Clan's videos, with each members' solo work across a dozen different labels fully represented, but that simply reinforces the fact that any compilation of this nature can only provide a small part of the story. All the group's videos are included, but the group is far more than the sum of its recordings as a collective. The Wu-Tang Clan is the product of nine contentious and conflicting individuals who were able, for a time, to create some great music together. The fact that the days of their productive collaboration are mostly at an end is not necessarily a bad thing, however: they grew up together, but then they grew apart. The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many, and if the Wu-Tang Clan records better music apart than together, then the collective has probably outlived its usefulness.


Wu-Tang Clan - C.R.E.A.M.


Wu-Tang Clan - I Can't Go to Sleep

5

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.