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Wu-Tang Clan

As Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan closes in on its 20th anniversary as a doggedly self-mythologizing rap squad, it’s sobering to note that their solo triumphs increasingly outweigh their collective ones. Make no mistake: Marvel Comics fetishizing, gothic soul beats, and knuckle-headed street shit still fit hand in glove, but finding a genuine, canonical Wu banger wherein the Clan roll more than three deep is no easy feat these days. Nonetheless, fractious interpersonal relationships aside, there’s some solace in knowing that Wu remains copacetic enough to Voltron-form now and again, if only to remind us of why we pledged allegiance in the first place.

Sun., Dec. 18, 8 p.m., 2011

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Wu Tang Clan

The nine-or-so members of hip-hop legends Wu-Tang Clan are wrapping up one of their busiest years together and apart from one another–one which included three solo and collaboration albums, a live Masta Killa album, and a triumphant run on the Rock the Bells tour, where they performed their classic 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in its entirety–with this tour, which they’re calling “The Rebirth.” Supposedly, all members except RZA who’s busy with his “acting career.” Nonetheless, eight out of approximately nine ain’t bad.

Wed., Dec. 29, 8 p.m., 2010

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Lauryn Hill

Performing at Rock the Bells this past summer alongside Snoop Dogg, the Wu-Tang Clan, and A Tribe Called Quest, the former (and future?) Fugee proved that her time away from showbiz hadn’t depleted her love for hip-hop. That said, don’t be surprised if she shows up for this cozy small-room gig with only an acoustic guitar and a notebook full of poetry for company.

Sat., Jan. 1, 9 p.m., 2011

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HAPPY WU YEAR

The noir textures and bitter chills of Wu-Tang Clan have been a winter headphone-earmuff staple in New York for nearly two decades—but their live show remains a high-energy sweatbox, and the best excuse to get in from the cold. Thankfully, the eight-man crew (R.I.P., Ol’ Dirty) has apparently patched up the complex internal beefs that were dividing their ranks, and their summer appearance at the Rock the Bells festival featured the entire crew as united as ever—performing as a group of eight old buddies instead of the divided, incomplete, fur-covered rock stars who graced the Hammerstein Ballroom in 2008. As for all the other burning questions—how is Ghostface’s Apollo Kids LP? Is Redman really joining the group full time? Will O.D.B.’s first-born son still be doing his bang-up job replacing the unpredictable legend? Head to Times Square (you know, the neighborhood where RZA used to watch all those kung-fu movies) and find out!

Wed., Dec. 29, 9 p.m., 2010

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LIQUID SWORDPLAY

The GZA may not be the Wu-Tang Clan’s most visible member, but he’s certainly been the hardest-working as of late, adhering to a nonstop punk-rock touring cycle, always overseas with his steely-eyed focus and his effortless tangles of words. He’s back in New York, likely still promoting his underrated sixth solo album, 2008’s Pro Tools, a no-nonsense mash of classic Gary Numan breakbeats, swipes at 50 Cent, retro-future noir production, and his inimitable puns (“0% Finance” tells a love story by using dozens of car brands). GZA has been dipping his toes in indie rock as of late—working with Dan Deacon and Black Lips, donating a verse to Peter Bjorn and John—so if anything pops off with Brooklyn’s noise-punk underground, you can say you saw it before it showed up on pitchfork.tv.

Sat., Jan. 9, 9 p.m., 2010

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‘Wallace Roney: The Legacy Continues’

Each of the trumpeter’s keening solos is a declaration, and though the ghost of Miles still haunts him to a degree, the depth of his chops and the forthright execution of same makes his work distinctive. He’s got an “Un Poco Loco” that will whup your azz, and his hip-hop dabblings—yep, he occasionally likes to show us his inner Wu Tang—are becoming hipper by the year.

Sun., Jan. 3, 10 p.m., 2010

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STILL NUTHING TA F’ WIT

Rap’s mainstream barely even exists anymore, and these days, the Wu-Tang Clan‘s eerie murk and ferocious paranoia couldn’t be any further from it. But if the endlessly chaotic Staten Island collective’s shows are now nostalgia-fests, they’re about the most forcefully giddy nostalgia-fests going, thanks in part to the throng of local diehards who will gladly bellow along with everything the group might throw at them. Last time this unruly mob rolled through Hammerstein, crew leader RZA was persona non grata after the rest of the group blamed his woozily psychedelic production job for the commercial failure of 8 Diagrams, their underrated 2007 reunion album. This time, his name is back on the flyer, so maybe someone apologized, and now it’s onstage MVP Method Man whose name is missing from the poster. As ever, it’s fun to speculate about what’s going on within those mysterious ranks: A promoter’s misprint? An internal falling out? Another shitty movie being filmed?

Tue., Dec. 23, 7 p.m., 2008

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Bobby Digital’s Digi-Snacks

The pinnacle of one of the all-time-great Wu-Tang publicity tours, for last year’s 8 Diagrams, was a 12-minute YouTube video in which a despondent, protest-chic Raekwon (dirty white tee, bummy gray skully) could be found practically weeping in the corner of some rundown hotel room. “You can’t make me a Soul Brother No. 1,” Rae says, looking away from the camera, voice cracking. “RZA’s trying to create too much of a orchestra, piano . . . he’s trying to do too much of this guitar shit, like he got a guitar on his fucking back . . . He’s like a hip-hop hippie right now.”

As it happens, that’s exactly what RZA is, and has been for a while—a chess- playing, Hollywood-acting, manga-drawing, self-help-book-authoring flower child whose best-of-his-generation ability in front of the boards is equaled only by his utter hopelessness as a rapper. Digi Snacks, his third album as Bobby Digital, erstwhile hedonist and prophet of the Internet age, comes at a time when the onetime Wu-Tang godfather can’t even get a Ghostface guest verse. For all the extracurricular drama, it’s pretty good. The Clan will surely hear the team of muttering old men and peasant-skirt-sounding, Afro-sporting ladies who grit out the lion’s share of Digi Snacks‘ hooks and be relieved. But most, if not all, of them will also admit—if only late at night and to themselves—that the thing mostly knocks. From the timpani overture of “Digi Snacks Intro” (which erupts into the exact dark, gothic classicism Rae wept for in that hotel room) straight through the “If I Ruled the World” shimmer of “Long Time Coming” and past the woodpecker wood-blocking wind-chime sweep of “Creep,” RZA arguably shows up his own 8 Diagrams and its disobedient soldiers, just to show he can.

Sonically, that is. On a mic, RZA’s still the same saliva-hocking, self-choking, own-beat-mauling MC, despite the suave alias. Some apparent online chess buddies stop by to rhyme on “Drama” and “Creep”; earlier, the god just throws up his hands on “Straight Up the Block,” throws the production to David Banner, and starts speaking in tongues: “La bonbon, très bien. Ça va? Let’s get it on.” Oui, tout à fait.

Bobby Digital plays Webster Hall July 5

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Live: The Wu-Tang Clan Comes Home

This is why I should never take pictures

Wu-Tang Clan
Hammerstein Ballroom
January 17, 2008

The crowd of hangers-on standing at the back of the Hammerstein Ballroom stage last night had to number in the triple-digits. From the looks of things, that crowd was enough to fill up, say, Mercury Lounge just by itself. I wondered how many Wu-Tang Killa Bees were among them, how many members of American Cream Team or Killarmy or Hillside Scramblers. A decade or so ago, the Wu-Tang name was still strong enough to support a thriving micro-economy of second-string rappers. These days, it’s barely strong enough to support itself. After last year’s free-flowing internal acrimony and the floptacular sales of 8 Diagrams (still a masterpiece, I don’t give a fuck what Raekwon says), the group is touring as a sort of makeshift unit, without RZA. And without RZA, it’s not even certain whether the group can legally use the Wu-Tang name or not. U-God, meanwhile, is suing Wu Music Group, the company run by RZA and his brother Divine, over unpaid royalties and show money. But despite the constant instability, or maybe because of it, the remaining eight members (Cappadonna included) worked as a functional unit onstage last night, never showing any obvious indication that things in the Wu-Tang universe were not as they should be. As recently as three years ago, Wu-Tang could still fill a New York arena. Now they’re relegated to Hammerstein Ballroom, a decent-sized venue in the shadow of Madison Square Garden. The first of the crew’s two Hammerstein shows sold out, but last night the entire top-tier balcony was empty. And 8 Diagrams was only invoked when the group told us to buy it and when the crowd was filing out, “Take It Back” playing over the PA system.

]

As much as I love 8 Diagrams, none of that album’s tracks would’ve worked in last night’s show. Rae’s big problem with the album is that it’s not the punch-you-in-your-face music that the group once perfected, but it’s hard to imagine the group recapturing the out-of-nowhere erratic energy of its first wave of albums even without RZA’s Lee Hazlewood fixation; they’re older now, after all. Still, punch-you-in-your-face music runs Wu’s live show, with good reason. As the group took the stage, the gutpunch drums and eerie singsong coos of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” were still potent enough to cause a near-riot among the hugely white, tough-guy intensive crowd. (Seriously, it looked like a Sick of It All show.) Up in my third-floor opera-box seat, the sound was all rushing bedlam: voices screaming over each other, crowd maintaining a constant chattering roar, beats barely audible but for the drums. Still, this was exciting stuff: a cathartic mass shoutalong of a bunch of songs that now feel like they come from a lifetime ago. Last night’s set list barely dipped into the crew’s post-98 catalog, but it still found room for something like thirty tracks: sometimes just a verse, sometimes just a chorus, sometimes the whole thing.

The gruffly unstable atmosphere at last night’s show couldn’t have been more different from the last show I saw at that venue, Jay-Z’s ritzy live-band extravaganza. In fact, it was closer to the other show I saw at Hammerstein last year: Slayer. Still, like Jay, Wu had a few special guests. During “Da Rockwilder,” Redman showed up to bellow a verse before disappearing back into the back-of-stage. And as the show was ending, Raekwon and Method Man pointed out a few luminaries onstage with them, making for a truly random onslaught of celebrity cameos. (Diddy! Tracy Morgan! Petey Pablo!) But the guest that stuck with me was ODB’s mother, who appeared onstage three quarters of the way through the show, bringing with her a few of ODB’s other female relatives. (His sisters, maybe? I couldn’t make out what Meth was saying when he introduced them.) And maybe the Germans have a word for it: the smile you get when you’re standing on a stage in front of a few thousand white people and your dead son’s rap group is performing his song celebrating unprotected sex, passing you a mic so you can sing along. She looked a little embarrassed and a little heartbroken, but she also looked truly, glowingly proud. For the rest of the show, Dirty’s family stood at center-stage, like bizarro-world S1Ws.

Without the RZA onstage with them, the crew was without a clear leader, and so Method Man stepped into the role. Meth was usually somewhere near front-center last night, and he was definitely the only guy in the group who kept moving (dancing on the barricade, executing a perfect front-flip stagedive, making me proud when he scolded the crowd for not being more like Baltimore). But he didn’t play frontman so much as some weird coach/cheerleader hybrid. When someone else was rapping, he’d stand beside the guy, egging him on. When someone’s mic sounded shitty (most of the time), he’d run around looking for a better mic, then toss it to whoever needed it. (The substitute mic always sounded exactly the same, but he got points for effort.) Everyone else in the group was content to play the background, even Ghostface, a total livewire at his solo shows. Still, this was as polished as I could possibly expect a Wu-Tang show to be. The last time I saw the group together onstage was almost twelve years ago, at Lollapolooza 96. That was a deeply unsatisfying experience: stuck on the bill between the Ramones and Soundgarden, the Wu set was a total garbled mess. This one certainly had moments of garbled messiness, but there was nothing perfunctory about it. Basking in the love of a die-hard hometown crowd, every last member looked amped to still be able to command this sort of devotion. If they can hold it together internally, Wu-Tang will be able to survive on the touring circuit for decades, keeping crowds like this one happy. I can think of worse fates.

Voice review:
Miles Marshall Lewis on the Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on the Wu-Tang Clan
Voice review: Kelefa Sanneh on the Wu-Tang Clan’s The W
Voice review: Joe Levy on the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang

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The Quarterly Report: Winter’s Best Albums

Ears of corn, heads of lettuce

Happy new year, kids. List fatigue or no list fatigue, it’s time for another one of these guys. As with 2006, the 2007 fourth quarter was jammed tight with small-time major-label rap records, records that had to be tax write-offs. And a lot of those records were great. We may never again see rap albums sell the way they once did, but that sort of adjusted expectation won’t necessarily be bad for the music. Most of my favorite rap records come from rappers playing to their various bases, and that’s what many of the best of them did this year, though the record that tops this list comes from a mastermind rap producer who reached way beyond his base and failed spectacularly. Apologies to Project Pat, Britney Spears, Witchdoctor, Burial, Trae, and Cass McCombs, all of whom could’ve made this list but didn’t.

1. Wu-Tang Clan: 8 Diagrams

Even during a time when nobody expects rap albums to sell anything, this one was a commercial flop of titanic proportions, outsold in its first week by Bow Wow and Omarion and motherfucking Birdman, and many of its principal players were publicly backing away from it long before that. And now Wu-Tang is touring without RZA and pointedly neglecting to do a single 8 Diagrams song onstage. All that’s a shame, but none of it erases this grim, mysterious triumph of a record. Because, really, 8 Diagrams isn’t all that weird; it’s heavy with eerie downbeat boom-bap and sneery threats and familiar rasps, stuff that these guys have been doing forever. But, OK, yeah, it’s also pretty weird: reverbed-out guitar-curls, left-field old-man rants, a Beatles sample that comes up totally warped and distended. But the weird/not-weird stuff is almost beside the point; this album gets its emotional punch from the voices at work here: eight bruised and damaged veterans, their anger and disappointment as fully internalized as their unreal technical skill and writerly grace, coming back together to do what they do. It’s an aural Wild Bunch.

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Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on the Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams

2. Band of Horses: Cease to Begin

Everything All the Time, the 2006 debut, snuck up on me hard after a few months; it did indie-style bombast perfectly. But Cease to Begin is a much smaller and more comfortable album in scope and sound. Instead of big guitar vroom-chugs and expansive howls, we get unobtrusive pedal-steel twinkles and contented sighs. This is total musical comfort-food, a record that pulls as many cues from assembly-line Nashville country as it does from Garden State indie but which remains pretty distant from both, pulling satisfying and familiar tonal warmth from both but sounding mellower and more intuitive than either typically matters. Cease to Begin has a sort of yearning languor to it; it’s like an old dog asleep in a sunbeam, kicking its legs because it’s probably dreaming about running. I wish all alt-country sounded like “Detlef Schrempf.”

Voice review: Garrett Kamps on Band of Horses’ Cease to Begin

3. Radiohead: In Rainbows

The commerce-flouting audacity of the album’s internet release was always going to overwhelm whatever music it might contain, but it’s pretty amazing that Radiohead managed to make its big fuck-the-industry statement on the back of an album that shirks the band’s artier tendencies altogether, going instead for the low-risk high-reward spidery fuzzpop that the band’s been distancing itself from for the better part of a decade. The vocals are still airy and borderline indecipherable, the time-signatures are still complicated mathematical lurches, and the sentiments are still as enigmatically dystopian as ever. For Radiohead, though, this is a total meat-and-potatoes move, and its pure, unmolested prettiness is what keeps me coming back. The dread is still there, but the warmth eclipses it. In Rainbows is an album that actually makes me feel better after hearing it, which, considering the personnel involved, might be the most audacious thing about it.

Voice review: Rob Harvilla on Radiohead’s In Rainbows
Voice review: Bret Gladstone on Radiohead’s In Rainbows [Disc 2]

4. Jay-Z: American Gangster

The concept-album thing was a bit of a red herring, but if Jay needed that concept of a concept to get him back to fighting weight, fine. American Gangster worked so well because it represented a way out of the old-rapper track: Jay got to reimagine his youth, or what he’s always presented as his youth, but he got to bring hard-earned wisdom and expensive production to this picture of a younger, more violent self. Because the beats are warm and orchestral pieces of 70s soul ephemera, he never sounds outdated; instead, he’s out of time, existing in a sort of dreamlike cinematic haze. And his lyrics work the way they always have: giving old rap cliches new life by expressing them in all sorts of dazzling intricate and complex ways in a voice so conversational and easy that those complexities aren’t immediately apparent. And when he snaps out of his reverie, as on “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” or “Blue Magic,” he brings with him some of the ferocity that he’d been remembering on those other songs.

Voice review: Amy Linden on Jay-Z’s American Gangster

5. Scarface: Made

I wouldn’t have thought so at the time, but The Fix stands in retrospect as a happy album, even with all its talk about death and addiction. “On My Block” was a contented dedication to the neighborhoods that birthed Scarface, and “Heaven” was an honest-to-God love song. Made, the years-later follow-up, is made of darker stuff. When Scarface is in a humanist mood here, he talks about incoherent nihilistic politics on “Who Do You Believe In” or the painful disintegration of a relationship, maybe even the relationship from “Heaven,” on “Go.” And when he’s feeling rough, he lets loose with some shit like this: “I got a black book and I ain’t got no names in it / ‘Stead, I keep the pictures of the craniums I done caved in.” (He follows that one up with “Naw, I’m playing,” but still.) And then there’s “The Suicide Note,” the crushed meditation on the friend he didn’t save. Throughout, Face’s rumbling voice meshes beautifully with the organic thump of the Rap-A-Lot production stable. Even on a small album like this, Scarface sounds like he’s got the world on his back. It’s sort of devastating.

6-10. Ghostface Killah: The Big Doe Rehab, Cam’ron: Public Enemy No. 1, Yeasayer: All Hour Cymbals, Gowns: Red State, Freeway: Free At Last.