According to the famous motivational aphorism, "there's no 'I' in teamwork". The idea being that the sum is greater than the parts, that a good player needs to check his ego for the good of the larger project. For the Wu-Tang Clan, a nine(ish)-strong hip-hop collective from Staten Island, New York, it's been an idea to which they pay lip service, but, historically, have had trouble putting into practice. The band is brilliant but erratic. A case in point: when they were shooting the sleeve of their magnificent debut album, 1993's Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), only five members showed up.
Still, in that winter of 1993, they were invincible. A group that built its music around the martial-arts obsessions of the founder member RZA (pronounced Rizzer), the collective’s music was raw and eerie, its rhymes magnificent. Where some rappers sought a documentary “realness” in their work, with all the philosophical problems that entailed, Wu-Tang embraced comic-book fantasy, a world of alternate identities. Ghostface Killah, the band’s best MC, might equally be known as “Ironman”, “Tony Starks”, or “Pretty Tone”. The band re-imagined Staten Island (honouring a monastic martial-arts discipline) as “Shaolin”. Music fans perhaps not otherwise drawn to rap found they could relate to this vivid mythology.
Each member had a well-articulated style, and soon, their own major record deal. By 1998, the pinnacle of the band's achievements, the group had released magnificent solo albums from principals such as Method Man, Ol'Dirty Bastard, Raekwon the Chef, Genius/GZA and Ghostface Killah. The group was able to field a full team for 1997's occasionally great second album Wu-Tang Forever, but by now it was becoming clear that the Wu faced the same problems as a big-league movie producer trying to make a sequel. How can the stars be incentivised? How can we get them all in one place?
Challenge or not, in 2011 a sixth Wu-Tang album was announced. With the 20th anniversary of the band's debut looming, the idea was to pull together the band's members from successful/interesting solo careers, in one case from beyond the grave (ODB died in 2004), and get the old team back together for a commemorative new work. Family Reunion, the final track on the album A Better Tomorrow, suggests it's all been idyllic. The reunion is imagined as a family picnic. Sounds of children laughing are heard. A churchy voice sings the hook. Someone mentions grandma.
If only it had been as easy as that. After Raekwon’s initial 2011 announcement came a GZA denial the following year. The anniversary itself in 2013 brought another denial (this time from Method Man), while RZA complained he had “invested thousands of dollars” in the project for scant interest. It all shed unfavourable light on a band who once declared themselves apart from material aspiration, declaiming negatively how “cash rules everything around me”, which they turned into an acronym and hit song: CREAM.
After such unpromising fanfare, it's a miracle that the album is here at all, never mind that it's actually pretty good. True enough, there are some odd moments, not least the fact that the first voice you hear on Ruckus In B Minor (a reference to the band's fiery 1993 anthem Bring The Ruckus) is that of someone dead for over a decade. There's saying nothing has changed, and then there's sitting in the house in your wedding dress for 30 years. On Felt, the band asks you to remember how good their records were 20 years ago ("Remember how you felt/when you heard Protect Ya Neck…"). Occasionally RZA, who handles virtually all of the music, falls back on his own production clichés.
Really, Wu-Tang don't need to live in the past quite to this degree. This is a record with strong showings from star players – the lisping, charismatic Method Man is on form – but what marks it out as a reunion record is the staunch presence of lesser-known members of the ensemble cast. 40th Street Black/We Will Fight has nice stuff from Inspectah Deck and the booming U-God, the loyal foot soldier. He was the only member to turn up to the Clan's video game launch, which feels characteristic. His presence signifies business as usual, in a positive way.
Likewise RZA and his associate producer Mathematics, who handle the music, are better when they're not overthinking. RZA's has traditionally been a minimalist aesthetic, but he's open to new ideas. Miracle sounds like it's from a Disney musical, at times an emo rock ballad – but develops into a buzzing, alien racket. On Ron O'Neal (an homage to the Superfly actor), RZA incorporates a Justin Timberlake-style vocal hook and seamlessly makes it a part of his relentless, drum-heavy assault.
The album’s best moments are these, where the issue isn’t whether the group has changed, or whether it has stayed the same – but when it’s simply getting on with the job. This is something Ghostface Killah has never been shy of. Easily the most spectacular of Wu-Tang’s MCs, and not shy of a flamboyant gesture (he often wears a gold eagle bracelet the size of a church lectern), he is short on prima-donna attitude. As well as appearing fleetingly on the Wu album, Ghost has one solo album out now, another coming next month, and at least two more pending for 2015.
36 Seasons, surely so titled to remind us of the Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers (just in case there was some other Ghostface Killah) is the first of these, and is an enjoyable if expedient collection. Rather than Ghost's own origination, the album's songs derive from a plot supplied to him by the comic-book artist Matthew Rosenberg. After nine years away, Tony Starks returns to Staten Island to discover his girl has left him and his best friend joined the police force. When a drug deal goes wrong, Starks is left requiring innovative plastic surgery that fuses him with a gas mask – a strong analogy, perhaps, for GFK's many-layered creative life. Not having to think about the narrative of the album meant he recorded his contributions to it in a mere 11 days. Loyalty finds his guest star, AZ, quoting lines from Wu-Tang's own song CREAM.
Much of the music for 36 Seasons was supplied by The Revelations, a Brooklyn band who have done as many retro-minded musicians have done: heard how hip-hop producers have sampled classic soul music to turn it into hip-hop breaks, and become the middle man: supplying swelling soul and funk, with the breaks and 16-bar soundbeds in place.
It's a creditable, if rather middle-of-the-road enterprise, the written-to-order nature of the music offering few surprises. Rather more exciting in this vein is Sour Soul, due in February, in which Ghostface guests with BadBadNotGood, a younger and more interesting group of jazz players. Spooky introductions, mysterious clanking and interesting musical choices make this record sound more as if we're hearing a collaboration with stirring experimental bands such as Chicago's Tortoise (Mono; Six Degrees), or Britain's most experimental soul/hip-hop group Portishead (Gunshowers; Food). Work with, say, Arvo Pärt wouldn't be inappropriate in the future.
The fact that it’s a record made with a live band, rather than one assembled from beats and samples works well as a metaphor for Ghostface Killah’s career generally. This is someone less interested in revisiting the past than moving forwards, trying new things. In middle age (like all of the Wu, he’s in his mid-40s), there’s reason to hope he may come to be regarded as someone such as Bob Dylan. Which is to say, an artist with an illustrious past – but with whom there is simply no way of guessing what he may do in the future.
The Wu-Tang Clan isn’t out of ideas yet, though. As if to remind us of their singular artistry, their next album will feature new material recorded over six years, a work for display in galleries, in an edition of just one.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London