Fly International Luxurious Art
It’s no secret that the Wu-Tang Clan is not the cultural juggernaut it once was. The group’s overhyped reunion album, A Better Tomorrow, was not only poorly received by critics but made a scant dent commercially, selling 24,386 copies in its first week before fading from the public consciousness.
From the conception of that ill-fated project, the production of the album was plagued by a war of words between two of the group’s most prominent members: RZA and Raekwon. The Abbot and the Chef feuded bitterly over the the group’s new musical direction with Rae even threatening to go “on strike” and to refuse participation in the new album if his issues with RZA were not resolved. A Better Tomorrow was undoubtedly the group’s longtime producer RZA’s baby, employing odd, off-kilter beats, sluggish live musicianship, and often embarrassingly cornball samples—say hi to Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”—that felt diametrically opposed to the classic Wu-Tang sound. If this was RZA’s vision for the future of Wu-Tang Clan, fans were not buying and it left many to wonder if the group would be better served under new leadership.
Raekwon has long suggested that he had a better grasp of what the group’s core fandom wants out of a new Wu-Tang record. But with his new album, Fly International Luxurious Art, it’s clear that his vision is just as disappointing as RZA’s.
with his new album, Fly International Luxurious Art, it’s clear that Raekwon’S vision is just as disappointing as RZA’s.
Fly International Luxurious Art is an often awkward and fumbling attempt to update Raekwon’s music. On two of his previous albums, 2009’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II and 2011’s Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, Raekwon enjoyed a creative renaissance by returning to the classic Wu-Tang sound of the 1990s, harvesting the kung-fu movie samples, dusty soul chops, and crime-lord imagery that were the signature of the group to great success. The albums seemed to indicate that the veteran swordsman was a worthy caretaker of the Wu-Tang mantle, one of the few members who not only understood what made Wu-Tang special but had the gravitas and skill to still bring the ruckus.
In contrast, F.I.L.A. feels half-committed to the Wu-Tang marquee. It’s an album filled with off-brand production, incongruous big-name guest artists, and half-baked singles that don’t quite know if they want to stay true to tradition or make an ill-advised play for modern radio. (The disco-inflected “All About You” with Estelle is especially egregious.) Raekwon has never been a solo artist who completely jived with mainstream hip-hop; his dense lyricism far too niche and insular to be easily translated to large audiences. But F.I.L.A. seems to indicate that the 45-year-old rapper wants to compete in that broader world.
The tracks on the album often feel too clean and chemical to be vintage with production that feels fished out of the bottom of a particularly barren dollar bin. The drums are spastic and have no aggressive thump. The horns feel as a plastic as a Fisher-Price toy. Meanwhile, Raekwon loads the album up with pricey guest appearances from modern rap stars: 2 Chainz (“F.I.L.A. World”) and French Montana (“Wall to Wall”) have been contracted to re-cast the Chef as less of the gritty, neo-crime lord of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and more of a glamorous titan of the music industry—obsessed with trips to Abu Dhabi and hotel concierge service. The features don’t work thematically, but also because many of these artists seem to physically struggle rhyming next to Raekwon, who at least retains his dexterous slang.
Despite the album’s conceptual missteps, Raekwon’s lyricism remains as deft and skillful as he was when he was growing up the New York Times side. “Straight max, burgundy Lex, swing a few bats/I’m Gretzky, hockey mask on in the ’jects/Yo I'm eating like Hortons, Gorton's fisherman hat/A wristband flooded, Jew jeweler selection,” Rae raps on “I Got Money” with the same creative intensity as ever. Other songs like the Rick Ross- and Ghostface-assisted “Revory (Wraith)” finds the right balance between vintage Wu and Maybach Music-ian cinematics that give the faithful listener just enough jewels to make it worth a stream on Spotify. Raekwon might be a commercially niche player in the rap game, but his lyrics are always sharp, and he doesn’t disappoint if lyricism is what you crave.
If Fly International Luxurious Art is Raekwon’s vision for himself in 2015, one wonders if anybody can rightfully lead the Wu-Tang Clan going forward. F.I.L.A. is not an entirely bad album, but it’s an album that does not lead or live up to the challenges of a 20-year legacy. Wu-Tang might be forever, but eternity should be more than the glorified fan fiction that a millionaire locks away in vault. It’s a shame that after all RZA and Raekwon’s bickering that neither might be fit to lead.
B.J. Steiner is a writer living in New York. Follow him @DocZeus.