What’s that one band that you ALWAYS see on those lists of “Artists Whose Best Album is Their First One”? It’s Wu-Tang, without any question: people treat “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit’” like the second coming of Christ and basically throw the rest of their albums under the bus, calling them trash, or filler.
But if you listen closely to “Triumph,” the lead single from their second album Wu-Tang Forever from 1997, you’ll find a profuse amount of new techniques in all aspects of the music. This includes, of course, the beat, which is one of the first rap hits to heavily use strings, and features a key shift in the strings’ interplay right in the middle of the rappers’ verses, not laying down something monochromatic or waiting for a silence or interlude to modify itself. It includes the song structure, which contains no chorus but rather all emcees rapping sequentially, once each. The lyrics, even, have accumulated a litany of new techniques, such as metaphor, the imagistic tactic of claiming to have “hands like Sonny Liston” or the violence analogy of “Ni**az is strapped / And they tryin’ to twist my beer cap”. This new array of new musical foibles should benchmark an album that were a breakthrough, a vehicle for remarkable profit and recognition and not some detritus of “sophomore slump” lists, or whatever it is now.
Granted, the ordering and sequencing on Wu-Tang Forever is kind of any issue, with five of the first six songs on disc one indeed being kind of shi**y (all except “Visionz,” in my opinion), and the sum total of good songs weighted undeniably within the second disc.
In 1997, after the release of Forever, Wu-Tang cut their tour with Rage against the Machine short because of what’s been cited as “internal conflicts,” and ultimately this probably placed a bigger hindrance than anything on them ever again being as big of a mainstream act as they were right on the release of “Triumph.” But this does not explain the bizarre placement of the group on RCA, a label typically reserved for rock and pop acts (the group would correct this error by moving to Columbia for their followup, the SEVERELY underrated and misunderstood The W). Nor does it explain how, despite having the group’s only double album on their hands, the label seemed to just lazily decline to issue a new single upon the album’s June release, letting “Triumph,” which had actually been out since February, do the totality of the heavy lifting in this department all throughout summer. The group’s next single wouldn’t be until “It’s Yourz,” which came in September and accompanied the start of their tour with Rage, despite of course early Spring being an ideal time to champion a new flagship tune.
And their pool of choices should have made any marketing A&R wet his pants: my favorite might be the excitingly confrontational and brisk-paced “Hellz Wind Staff” but other classic songs that would have been great for radio include “Older Gods,” with Pretty Tony’s declaration of “I shi**ed on your hood kid”, or “Little Ghetto Boys,” a dark and mournful call to young men in their hood to rein in the violence and loot-chasing. The song samples an old soul singer referring to “Little ghetto boys / Playing in the little ghetto street”. This song is followed by the guttural glory of “Deadly Melody,” to say nothing of “Bells of War,” which helps tie the middle of disc two together.
“It’s Yourz,” the actual second single, is definitely a pretty solid choice, but then the only other tune RCA showcased off this album was “Reunited,” which, on top of being a fairly mediocre tune, was a really stupid single to issue seeing as the group had essentially just broken up, or cancelled the main legs of their tour because of inner disagreements. Plus, if you look at the video for “Triumph,” it just looks low-budget and tacky: they should have maybe staged it at night, so the deficiencies in the special effects wouldn’t have been so noticeable. They took a trippy, dark and robust full-bodied hip-hop song and paired it with a video on the comedic meagerness level of Mars Attacks.
Of course, it was certainly an unconventional decision, made most likely by the group’s beat-maker and unofficial commander in chief RZA, to do a tour with Rage against the Machine, a rock act, when the group’s music itself is centered so decisively on hip-hop. Three years after Wu-Tang Forever, the group would spin out The W, and album which, though great, is dark, tense and not very mainstream-minded, save for the pair of throwaway singles that saw marginal life from it “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump off)” and “Gravel Pit.” In this way, The W probably saw the ultimate demise of this group’s ability to ever be bigger than they were right when “Triumph” was out, leaving us to always wonder what could have been with better business decision making on Forever’s release on the part of the label.