Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang

(Ice H20/EMI; 2011)

By Colin McGowan | 5 May 2011

This is what we feared the Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995) sequel would sound like: a mish-mash of worn out Wu-isms. Perhaps “feared” is overstating it, but many Wu disciples would have felt an uncomfortable twinge in their chests had the Cuban Linx tag been applied to something so resolutely average. In other words, Rae claims his latest release, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is the proper follow-up to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II (2009), but I’m going to pretend it’s not.

Part of the reason Cuban Linx II dropped into our laps like a smoldering meteor in autumn of 2009 was that Raekwon, since Immobilarity (1999) bricked nearly a decade before, had ostensibly cooled, coagulating into a considerably less exciting version of himself. Like a late-career sports star, he plugged away methodically, the characteristics of his game recognizable but unspectacular; once in a while he would toss out a vintage performance (frequently when paired with Ghostface) before settling back into monotony. It was unexpected, Rae’s revival of his mid-‘90s swagger, but it resounded all over Cuban Linx II: “Fly criteria / Bury me in Africa with whips and spears and rough diamonds outta Syria.”

Shaolin marks a return to the monotony of post-millennial Raekwon studio albums and mixtapes. If you spent your teenage years sprawled on a carpet or couch running through the Wu’s back catalogue, you could capably sketch the architecture of this album. In fact, Shaolin is paradigmatic in its adherence to the tropes of Wu records—practically mathematical. Like every Bun B verse must contain at least three references to Cadillacs, candy paint, weed, syrup, and/or a wood grain steering wheel, Shaolin features monologues ripped from karate flicks, stove talk, vague Eastern wisdom, and a chintzy version of the RZA’s sonic palette.

So, “Masters of Our Fate” features swelling awe, an old Japanese dude talking about courage, and old-guy rap advice. There’s a track called “Ferry Boat Killaz.” Nas shows up just to remind us why we never wonder what he’s up to anymore. Instead of a banger, we get “Rock’n‘Roll,” a ham-fisted attempt to coin drug slang. Ghostface attempts to go hard, instead producing a verse that sounds like a puddle of fluorescent bodily fluids grown Dracula fangs: “Shit is too old, nigga feel like rhyming it / Get black, white, Mexicans / Make me fly like Donovan.”

There are moments of straightforward brilliance—notably, a rare pair of tracks that feature Rae flowing by his lonesome, “Butter Knives” and “Snake Pond”—but it’s difficult to differentiate these two tracks from the rest of the album by describing their characteristics or sound—such is Shaolin’s monochrome hue—though their execution is clean. On “Snake Pond,” Raekwon doesn’t bother with a hook, allowing the beat to bleed through between four and eight bar segments. If much of Shaolin is a showcase of just how boring Rae and his Wu cohorts’ styles can get, these exceptions remind us of the simple joy in listening to Rae rip through a few verses with characteristic ease.

Perhaps I sound worn out. It’s not that my hunger for the Wu aesthetic has been satiated and I’m now hunched over like a man with a gut too full of pizza. Just that OB4CL II proved Raekwon can still produce incredible music without deviating from the template of gangsta shit filtered through his bizarre knack for fly talk and his distinctive rasp. Shaolin is simply tiresome, a heap of cliches with no animating force beneath its husk-like frame, not so much a follow-up to anything but our long-held anticipation for something better.