Opening Acts: When the Tide Is High

Wu-Tang Forever and Ever

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Wu-Tang Forever, the Staten Island crew’s second album and the closest they have come to pop ubiquity. At 27 tracks and nearly two hours, it aims to serve as an ur-text of the group’s cosmology but ultimately settles for bloat. Years later, fans still argue over which tracks deserve inclusion and which should have been left on the DAT tape. There’s general agreement that “Reunited” and “Impossible” are keepers and “Wu-Revolution” and “Shampoo” are unnecessary; less so with uneven favorites like the sentimental “A Better Tomorrow” and the hilariously idiotic “Dog Shit.”

Wu-Tang Forever also marks a year when the Clan proved too unstable for corporate dissemination. It topped the charts upon its June 3rd release, and eventually was certified four times platinum. That same month, the group received an unwelcome closing spot at Hot 97 radio’s annual Summer Jam — artists prefer the second-to-closing spot since fans usually leave to beat traffic during the final act. As a result, Wu-Tang used the opportunity to scream “Fuck Hot 97” and throw shade at then-dominant Bad Boy Records. The incident not only led to their music being banner at the station, but also at other Emmis Commuications affiliates as well. A hotly-tipped tour with Rage Against the Machine resulted in disaster, with Ol’ Dirty Bastard showing up drunk to gigs, then the entire crew bailing, supposedly over payment issues. The Roots eventually took their place as openers.

As the Wu immolated, they set a pattern of unruly dissension that persists to this day. Innovative to a fault, their contrary impulses as eight strong-willed men — RIP ODB, and nine if you count Cappadonna — kept them from working together towards corporate synergy. Still, Wu-Tang Forever stands as a unique tide-is-high moment, a white elephant for East Coast rap just as it transitioned from the grimy criminology of the mid-90s to the heavily processed jiggy slickness of the late 90s.


The End of the Imperial Phase: Kendrick Lamar, etc.

The marketing blitz around Wu-Tang Forever recalls other shark-jumping rap albums, none more recent than Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.

Less than a month after its release, Lamar’s first album in five years continues to enjoy an uneven reputation. To be sure, Mr. Morale currently has an 89 rating on Metacritic, good enough to rank as one of the top 10 best reviewed albums of 2022 so far. But there was a shift between its debut at midnight on Friday, May 13, when early listeners crowed about its greatness; and a few hours later, when skeptics began to complain loudly about controversial tracks like “Auntie Diaries,” his frequent complaints about “cancel culture,” and his patronage of wayward rapper Kodak Black. Some of the same writers who rhapsodized about Lamar’s preview single “The Heart Part V” and seemed ready to fête him with the usual hosannas were shocked at the pricklier, less accommodating voice they encountered on Mr. Morale.

What does it mean when an album symbolizes the other side of a peak, the one that leads downward? It can be when a still-vital act retreats into mannerisms that make them seem irrelevant, like Public Enemy circa Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black. Maybe it’s a musician who begins dressing up old ideas as emperor’s new clothes, like Kanye West and The Life of Pablo. It could be someone who can’t help but repeat the same old formula, like Drake and Views. Or perhaps it’s someone who suddenly retreats from fame into enigmatic self-indulgence such as Outkast and their Idlewild soundtrack. All of these albums have memorable qualities and their share of defenders, some more than others. But they also mark the moment when the imperial phase ends and a superstar exits the critical/commercial Zeitgeist. (Drake and Kanye, of course, continue to be very popular.)

It remains to be seen where Lamar will go next. At the least, listeners will continue to process what may be his most difficult album, especially as best-of-year lists roll around in November. But it’s clear that the time when Lamar enjoyed near-universal acclaim is over.


Origins of Hip-Hop: Fat Joe

On May 30, A&E premiered a new series, Origins of Hip-Hop. Produced by Nas’ indefatigable Mass Appeal Entertainment, the eight-episode docuseries kicks off with a profile of South Bronx rapper Fat Joe, who details a harrowing childhood in South Bronx before shifting into a routine chronicle of his workmanlike career. Oddly, it skips over a few key turns. While his arrest and imprisonment on tax evasion charges are covered, the episode doesn’t address the breakup of the original Terror Squad, and how former friends like Cuban Link accused him of mismanaging their careers; his co-founding of the vital 90s rap collective D.I.T.C., and his odd foray into a multilevel marketing scheme.

The announcement of the series last month occasioned a familiar discussion: is Fat Joe underrated? He has never been great a bar-for-bar lyricist, though he improved after his 1993 debut Represent; and he never made an album that’s widely accepted as a classic, though his biggest fans might argue for Jealous One’s Envy or Don Cartegena. However, he has a unique voice and plenty of presence. He always sounds like he’s about to bum-rush the stage. His standing as one of the earliest Latin rap stars deserves respect, as does his mentoring of the late Big Pun, DJ Khaled, and Remy Ma. Yet he’s often felt undervalued, hence the title of his 2007 album, The Elephant in the Room.

Mostly, Fat Joe is known for making over two decades of hits, from 1993’s “Flow Joe” to 2017’s “All the Way Up.” Like Khaled, he’s exhibited a good ear for singles that resonate on hip-hop radio and in the clubs, for better or worse. Understandably, Origins of Hip-Hop doesn’t mention “We Thuggin’,” his Billboard top 15 hit with R. Kelly. It may be common now for rappers to stick around in the spotlight forever, but it certainly wasn’t in the early 90s.  He has admirable survival instincts, knows how to package together records, and has carved a distinctive and even groundbreaking career. Those qualities seem more valuable than another useless “G.O.A.T.” debate.


New Rap: May 2022

This list of new albums released in May 2022 is simply that: a list. It’s not exhaustive, and doesn’t reflect the albums I liked this month, or even the ones I listened to — although I have listened to a few. Instead, it simply collects the titles that interest me and which I may explore further. Although I admit that’s essentially a judgement call, there may be plenty of things I should have included. It’s very likely I will need a “late pass” for titles that I missed. I reviewed a handful of titles for various publications. In those cases, I added hyperlinks.

Jack Harlow, Come Home the Kids Miss You
Jermiside & The Expert, The Overview Effect
Sleep Sinatra, Brainstormz
Libretto & Vitamin D, Rusty Bladez
Leikeli47, Shape Up
Sideshow, Weghata Tapes Vol. 1
Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers
They Hate Change, Finally, New
Quelle Chris, Deathfame
Boldy James & Real Bad Man, Killing Nothing
Dreezy & Hit-Boy, Hitgirl
700 Bliss, Nothing to Declare

Kendrick Lamar photo by Renell Madrano.

This post has been updated.

 

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