They were right when they named it.
It’s strange that when the Wu-Tang Clan is remembered, few mention the follow-up to the critically hailed and fanatically loved Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). True, the group will always be remembered for its 1993 debut masterpiece, but few bands become legendary on just one disc. Tossed aside as beginner’s luck, artists like The Dismemberment Plan and The Strokes will forever harbor the stigma of being in the right place at the right time, a perfect storm of musical aspirations and catchy melodies. But Wu-Tang is no one-album wonder. Its collective sophomore release Wu-Tang Forever is the real disc that solidified its iconic status.
A communal reputation bolstered by the solo releases of its nine MCs, Wu-Tang is a group that seems always to be in the mix. With four years between the release of 36 Chambers and Forever, the band’s lyricists began to forge different careers, releasing solo works with surprising aptitude. Without constant assistance of fellow Clan members – excluding the production of the RZA on many solo discs as well as random guest verses – the separate Wu members proved they didn’t just travel in packs. Wu-Tang’s individually elevated game provided the reason to collaborate once again and record the behemoth two-disc Forever.
And it seems that Wu-Tang knew what it was creating. The late Ol’ Dirty Bastard screams on the epic “Triumph,” “Wu-Tang is here forever, motherfuckers.” This confidence and swagger is a product of the MCs knowing how great this album would be. You would guess the band couldn’t get any cockier than on 36 Chambers – but it did, and with reason. It’s even self-referential, copping its smash hit “C.R.E.A.M.” on the chorus of “Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But the Money.” Wu-Tang knows where it’s been. It knows it’s great. And it won’t let you forget it.
But Forever isn’t just boastful cries. The band has skills to back it up. RZA’s production never sounded better. His brooding beats are more collected and focused, soul samples more interesting, snares and hi-hats tighter. There are hints of Wu-Tang production in nearly every modern hip-hop album, what with Kanye West admitting he stole his style from RZA, while the keyboards on “It’s Yourz” and strings on “The City” are strangely reminiscent of countless top-40 hits – much of it stemming from Forever’s sprawling range.
RZA isn’t the only member of the Wu that substantially upped his skills for this release. After dropping the genius Ironman, Ghostface Killah – easily the most prolific Wu-Tang MC – is absolute fire on both discs. He opens “Older Gods” with a rapid-fire quatrain with more internal rhyme than you can shake a stick at: “Yo I roll like a bat outta hell / Evil acappella’s fly spitting out of my grill / Before I hit the sky with springtime colors / Juicy as Sunkist, certain broads double-dutch this.”
But it’s not until the second disc opens with the searing “Triumph” that the greatness of Forever is clear. As all nine members get their own verse, the track plays like the epitome of Wu-Tang: Each eclectic member gets his time and 16 bars over RZA’s protruding bass line and strings. Even the group’s lesser lyricists turn their mics to 11 before tearing through the track (note Inspectah Deck’s first quatrain, “I bomb atomically, Socrates’s philosophies / And hypotheses can’t define how I be dropping these / Mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery / Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me”).
After Forever, the Wu-Tang Clan more or less fell off as a whole. Solo careers skyrocketed while the group gained notoriety as individuals garnered praise. The Wu-Tang Clan became almost mythical, a super group rather than a springboard for its members. Forever plays as the materialization of that myth. Hidden in the shadow of its predecessor 36 Chambers, most forget this troupe actually did get back together and delivered on every level.