New Reviews of Old Music: The W

The W
Wu-Tang Clan
2000, Loud Records
* * * *

As a kid, holed up in an abandoned hotel on the rough side of a town named for an asylum, I listened to Public Enemy, DAS EFX, other classics.  Somehow my white uncle managed to find the best music (he had Moby in 1992), while I struggled to catch up—my head full of my father's tastes: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Dire Straights, sometimes Johnny Cash, sometimes T-Rex (all of which I later came to appreciate greatly).  "The W," unbelievably, shoves me into an un-marked van and drives me around in the cityscapes I imagined as a child.  This album takes me to some of those odd, stretched-out moments of my childhood: the Mysterium Tremendum of urban angst unfolding not quite in fantasy, not quite in reality, at the very edge of a highway town, an hour from (what was for me) the only chance to experience real city and real action.
      This album has a quality that is rare in rap: quiet.  There is enough room in "Careful (Click, Click)" to hear drain grates dripping, feet sliding on pavement, and other odd, icy, city sounds.  This all comes behind plaintive lyrics and eerie, droning cries.  The quiet, or the space (which reappears at intervals all along the journey), doesn't so much evoke emptiness, but becomes just enough to clear the space and establish a nearly fairy-tale quality in these urban and gothic songs.
      There is violence throughout, and a constant complaint against the violence.  This album asks us, among other things, to witness the weariness of living with crime in the city.
      "I shoot a hole in a fifty-cent piece to test my aim," while a wonderful nod to the tradition of dis (though not exactly or fully a dis in itself), is set in a context of tired revolution.  The track "One Blood Under W" is a rainy call to continue a tired militancy against the Babylon of the urban machine-life. People, get yourselves together: one blood, indeed.  A wide variety of characters (including the likes of Isaac Hayes and Snoop Dogg) aid each other in writing this world, and our world is better for paying attention to the one created here.  "I Can't Go To Sleep" is more or less unforgettable—manly, honest, and raw.
      Yes, I'm biased toward this album.  Wu-Tang Clan has ably evoked the ghosts of my past and a longing for the wonder of my childhood—a wonder and a love for cities, and for urban decay.  But it doesn't stop there.  It has demanded, again, that I mature enough, again, to shed any rose-tinted view of life in the city.  I cannot believe that I have been alone in feeling this wonder; and I cannot believe that I will be alone in wandering carefully through the street-worlds of "The W" for a long time to come.  And I won't be the only one changed when the time comes for leaving the place, the album, as a more respectful and more adult listener.
      This album is full and rich, spiritual.  It's not a place for the unprepared or for the pansy.  And it's got Kung-Fu.  So, go listen now.  
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