In 2014 RZA announced the release of a new Wu-Tang album limited to one physical copy. The single pressing would be presented in ornate packaging, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder then never played publicly. Which sounded more Willy Wonka than Wu Tang. If it was a publicity stunt, it couldn’t have gone worse. Because the winning bidder was soon-to-be convicted pharma bro Martin Shekreli, who wasted no time stunting on social media with it. Following Shekreli’s incarceration a few years later, the album was seized by the feds and resold to a group of crypto-investors. By then anyone who still cared had little desire to hear the music, since it’d been revealed the album was just a compilation by a C-list semi-Wu producer. Maybe it was all just a big ripoff? Can it be so simple?

Grandiosity was always a key element of the Wu dynamic. At best you could say their aim was to achieve dignity in an undignified world. They aimed high, with a collective ethos more like Scientology than Run-DMC. Peak hubris occurred somewhere around 1997 for the release of their brilliant and eccentrically ambitious double album Wu-Tang Forever. They bragged in the press about buried meanings and sacred truths, RZA told kids to skip school to listen to it and predicted the followup would coincide with a comet. If ever the Wu were to release a million dollar album to tour art galleries, the late 90s was the time.

Because all of that conceptual stuff was secondary to the music. Peak Wu Tang is really something special, a heady synthesis of social justice and street poetry, visions of universal laws via arty New York hip hop. That’s the real Wu cult, those core albums – the first few group efforts, plus Liquid Swords and Cuban Linx and Supreme Clientele and so on. Legendary, timeless music. Now I will argue later how I believe the Wu continued to release sporadically solid work. But by the year 2000 the formula was just that – a formula, and getting stale.

The initial decline of the Wu came down to two factors: RZA’s collapse as a musical force and the dilution of the brand with too many affiliates. The Wu could always be divided between the members who needed the brand and those who’d be successful artists regardless (Ghostface, Method Man, Raekwon, arguably GZA). When the former group far outweighed the latter, that was a problem. Even worse, RZA abandoned his signature sound for a disastrously clumsy keyboard reboot. The “Produced by RZA” credit turned from a gold stamp to a weak link. Meanwhile the Wu formula proved relatively easy to reproduce, at least on a base level with the usual kung fu clips and dusty samples. Eventually you knew just what you were getting from a Wu branded album, just as hip hop was moving on to new territory.

That Wu facsimile work kept going up through the early 2010s. Every few years someone tried to restore the feeling, so we got Meets The Indie Culture and Chamber Music and Legendary Weapons and so on. The work was okay, more dogged professionalism than inspiration. New affiliates tried to keep the torch burning. Like say Cilvaringz, whose 2007 album was stamped with the Wu logo and featured all the right guests and sonics. It was the kind of album where you said, “oh that sort of sounds like the old stuff, you know I think I’m just gonna go put on one of those classics instead.” Get it? I won’t go as far as to call it phony because it’s clearly the product of hard work and admiration for the brand. But Cilvaringz’s album was a minor work. And guess who was the main producer on the one-of-a-kind super piece of Renaissance art Once Upon A Time In Shaolin? Cilvaringz. That is what Martin Shekreli paid multi millions for, what got all the publicity, what the feds seized and what some crypto investors bought last year. Just another compilation of faux-Wu that most fans were tired of by the mid 2000s.

Now – I could be wrong. I haven’t heard Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Very few people have. But at this point I don’t think I’d give it a click even if it were free. The Wu-lly Wonka business was a bad idea from the start, and when Shekreli entered the chat it turned toxic. You reap what you sow, and so – the Wu brand was permanently damaged thanks to that whole affair.

Let’s finish up with some positivity. What in the Wu is worth listening to outside of the core classics? Lots of stuff. Ghostface Killah’s discography might be the GOAT run of not just Wu but any rapper. As he’ll tell you himself, he’s got classics for days. Aside from that, here’s a few suggestions for Wu related music:

Killarmy – Dirty Weaponry (1998)

4th Disciple was a masterful producer. Low bass, haunting samples, and a raw methodology laid earthy ground for the group’s revolutionary rhymes. The trilogy of Killarmy albums endure thanks to 4th’s soundscapes more than their lyrical skills. The rhymes are sometimes clumsy, but endearingly so. These are the Wu lil bros, and they want to drop that spiritual math and military leadership but they don’t always hit the mark. So what? Killarmy’s music just works, the most listenable and relistenable of any of the side crews. All three albums are solid, Dirty Weaponry being my favorite for its most cohesive sound.

J-Love Presents Return Of The Swarm (2003)

At the height of the mixtape era, J-Love was the underground East Coast king. No one was a better Wu Tang aggregator for their post-peak era. Mixtapes thrived because proper albums were getting ponderous, serving too many masters with club tracks and R&B hooks and guest verses from pop rappers. It just wasn’t worth buying mainstream rap albums for a few good songs. J-Love was able to pick out the handful of bangers from each Wu project, including B-sides and guest verses and freestyles, so his mixtapes became revelations. If you’re a fan of classic Wu Tang and you want more, you will find it on these tapes.

Bronze Nazareth – The Great Migration (2006)

Bronze Nazareth had contributed key production to RZA’s Birth Of A Prince along with some of his own mixtapes. But I don’t think anyone expected this from his debut. The Great Migration raised a Wu flag for Detroit, with razor sharp yet dusted out beats and choppy but keenly felt and charismatic rhymes. This album expanded on the Wu formula, evoking a personal narrative of a struggling producer/rapper trying to make it in the industry while keeping his integrity. You could argue Bronze was the Wu’s version of Kanye West.

Killah Priest – The Psychic World Of Walter Reed (2013)

Killah Priest was almost a core member of the Wu. And probably should have been. His dense rhyme-and-religion style works perfectly on posse tracks, where he’s liable to steal the show. He’s distinctive, with that perfect equilibrium between abstraction and classic MC hauteur. Like KRS-One, or more accurately late 90s Nas. Killah Priest is a true theologian, dropping all kinds of biblical references that go way over my head. His rhymes hold up to close inspection, but I’d say his music works best if you let it ride out in the background. It’s just dope. I love his debut Heavy Mental, as well as 2001’s Priesthood. But this double album from 2013 has to be his masterpiece, and it’s a weird one. It just never stops, it’s like reading a 700 page novel. And you know what? I’m not mad at that.

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