The trailer for the RZA’s directorial debut features the following: gratuitous violence, flying guillotines, a brute with golden armour, ornate thrones, beautiful women, more gratuitous violence, decapitation, Russell Crowe as a gunslinger, Lucy Liu doing her best O-Ren Ishii and pop-culture omniscient Quentin Tarantino’s proud stamp of approval. It all looks utterly ridiculous and totally awesome and prompts priapism from fan boys and back-packers everywhere, a number to which I must unfortunately divulge my membership.
If Wu-Tang Clan endures it is precisely because of this positioning between hip-hop and aesthetic, so it is entirely fitting (and admittedly inevitable) that a movie should be on the horizon. It should be noted, however, that this project has been helmed by the RZA, not the band, so this isn’t exactly a complete return for the Wu. Still, whenever the group gets together it is always cause for excitement and they certainly don’t disappoint, bringing together what looks to be a roll call of nearly every major rapper working today, not to mention some intriguing and unique collaborations.
Opener “Baddest Man Alive” finds RZA spitting lines over the Black Keys‘ fuzzed out garage riffs. The RZA has never been the most renowned rapper of Wu-Tang but he’s clearly in his element here, adjoining the band’s grooves with some undeniably fun and loony lyrics about the life of the track’s eponymous, unhinged badass. It’s the first major collaboration of the piece, and it’s a strong one at that.
What follows are some incredible (and on occasion improbable) combinations, some that work very well and some that fall short of the mark. “Black Out” is a perfect example of the former, having Ghostface Killah trading blows with M.O.P and the show-stealing Pharoahe Monch. Monch, still majorly (and quite annoyingly) underrated does his thing insofar as making nearly every other rapper irrelevant. He’s in good company though, as the skills of all three are well balanced over a sumptuous, string-laden beat. “Built for This” is similarly well judged, with Method Man, Streetlife and the ascendant Freddie Gibbs all complimenting each other brilliantly.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Wu-Tang without a posse cut and a turn from the ever-reliable duo Ghostface Killah and Raekwon. It’s been nearly five years since 8 Diagrams so it’s an utter joy to hear the crew back together on “Six Directions of Boxing.” Still, it’s “Rivers of Blood” which has to be the standout. A beast of a tune, it features a massive, neck-breaking beat accompanied by Ghost, Rae and the venerated Kool G Rap absolutely murdering it in fine style.
There are some tender moments on the soundtrack too, with the much-discussed “White Dress” and smoother, more soulful pieces like “I Forgot to be Your Lover” and “Your Good Thing.” “White Dress” features Kanye West in a considerably more subdued role than what his eccentric persona normally brings. It works well to his credit, finding him musing about love and commitment with surprising sincerity. “I Forgot to be Your Lover” and “Your Good Thing” are also both superlative, featuring soul talents new and old in the form of Tre Williams and his band The Revelations and the legendary Mable John.
As has been mentioned, not all of these collaborations work. I’m not sure whom Killa Sin is trying to channel on “The Archer,” but his attempts to sound menacing certainly don’t stop the track from being pretty dull. “Tick, Tock” isn’t particularly remarkable either, even if it does have Pusha-T sounding for once like a half-competent rapper. Likewise the charms of pop-soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae seem very misplaced on “Chains,” who tries but doesn’t quite deliver on what must have been conceived as the ballad of the album. Still, the majority of criticism should be reserved for the ending track “I Go Hard.” Even Ghostface can’t save this turd, which seems to consist entirely of wearily aspirational fanfares and laughable platitudes like “they think they know you, until one day they show you, so no matter what they say I go hard.”
Viewed as an album The Man With The Iron Fists suffers entirely from length and inconsistency, both in regard to quality and execution. Does that stop it from including some of the hardest, most exceptional material the collective have produced in years? Of course not. What we have here is a reminder of the longevity and tireless creation of one of hip-hop’s most celebrated groups, brought together under the guiding influence of one of its greatest visionaries. As they say, how can hip-hop be dead if Wu-Tang is forever?