If you haven't yet heard Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the final album by the Wu-Tang Clan, it's too late. Last night, the RZA exhibited the album for the first and last time in front of a crowd of about 150 art collectors, dealers, and critics (and four radio contest winners) in an outdoor dome adjacent to the MoMa PS1 in Queens.
The Abott and producer Cilvaringz played 13 minutes of selections from the album and spoke to the crowd about plans to auction off the album to the highest bidder. But before the record could be heard, those hoping to even glimpse at the box had all electronic devices confiscated and were patted down by security to ensure no recordings could be made.
The full project, described as a “time capsule,” contains 31 tracks and runs nearly two hours long. The record comes in a silver, jewel-encrusted box with a wax seal of the Wu-Tang logo and leather-bound liner notes. Due to its uniqueness and the fact that the only key is stored in a vault in Marrakesh, the one-of-one pressing was nearly lost forever when intercepted by an overzealous U.S. customs agent.
"This is certified authentic, this is real," RZA explained while showing off an ornate, nickel and silver hand-carved box featuring the Wu insignia. "This is the seal to a musical legacy.”
The record starts out with ominous, foreboding production of heavy rains and several bursts of thunder, each louder than the last. Once the thunder cracks so loud it sounds like either the speakers or your eardrums could pop, the beat drops, and Raekwon spits the first bars.
The production is rich, layered, and sonically bombastic and very much in the vein of the first two Wu albums. Despite the rugged, hard-hitting sound that smacks of ’93-‘97 RZA, it seems he’s actually deputized producer Cilvaringz to play beatsmith. RZA meanwhile has chosen to fall back and gives notes, acting as the album’s executive producer.
All eight living members are said to be on the album, though Method Man didn’t seem to be featured in the selections played. There are features from longtime Wu affiliates like Killarmy, Redman, and most surprisingly Cher, who appears twice, as both singer and actress. As much as 80 percent of the record is said to be re-recorded, in an attempt to get the guys to spit with the same hunger and intensity they did in their prime.
Ghostface Killah was in particularly rare form going bar for bar over a layered soundscape, which includes blaring fire sirens, crowd applause, and a Wu-Tang chant chugging along steadily to a marching drum beat. That record ended with Cher belting out with heavy echo and studio effects “Wu-Tang Baby, they rock the world.”
Some standout Tony Starks bars included:
“I saw N*’s, cough up blood, when they hiccup
Holding they stomach, coming back from a stickup
If you don’t make it, can you keep your half of the bread?
I’m not playing sweetbread, you halfway dead.”
“Damn Tone, leave ’em alone
(Shut the fuck up!)
Be quiet before I go in your bag/Then I’m a come up
You know how I do, I get busy
If we can get through this near death shit I throw ’em an extra $50”
The project sounds raw and rugged down to the mixing and mastering. The dusty yet crisp signature sound that evokes a fierce blade, both razor-sharp and rusted would feel very familiar to fans of vintage Wu-Tang. Lyrically the album also felt like a return to form. Two decades later, the MCs managed to channel the mid-'90s Shaolin mindset, with the gritty storytelling and eclectic references fans know to expect.
Two decades later, the MCs managed to channel the mid-'90s Shaolin mindset.
If anything, the problem might be that the formula was followed too closely. While the right balance of soul samples, movie dialog, and kung fu sound effects seemed to have been struck, it’s impossible to appraise whether it earned instant classic status after only hearing a less than generous 10 percent. Throughout the disjointed “highlight reel” of snippets, there were undoubtedly some gems, but there you also got the feeling that some of the deeper cuts might be better suited for a Wu-Tang mixtape, if such a thing ever existed.
The crowd was largely still and silent throughout the entire stretch of music, clapping politely when that part of the evening concluded. The art world denizens seemed more attentive during the Q&A afterward, where Sasha Frere-Jones spoke with RZA and Cilvaringz. Even then, the only moments the art world patrons seemed to relish were when RZA would accidentally misspeak or pull a pop culture reference out of thin air.
During the talk, the Abbott revealed that he didn't tell the rest of the Clan about the project when working on it. The album is said to be six years in the making, with RZA allegedly beginning to reveal his intentions to the group 2-3 years ago while Frankenstein-ing this all together. He claimed the crew was on board, but he "couldn't tell them where the boat was headed.”
They went as far as to use soundalike beats, swapping them out at the last minute, for fear that one of the other Wu-Tang members might leak a portion. RZA claims his Wu brethren saw value in the project in the end, though it seems unlikely anyone but the project’s architects will see money on the backend.
The idea that 100 percent of the Wu saw eye-to-eye on this is also dubious, given they participated under false pretenses and RZA’s apostles haven’t seen things eye-to-eye in nearly 20 years, it’s hard to imagine an art object with a starting price in the multi-million dollar range turning that all around.
Beyond an attempt to pay tribute to one of hip-hop’s true musical dynasties, the duo behind the record say the hand-crafted packaging is an attempt to reverse the course of the music industry. They aim to create a value and rarity as they feel the ubiquity of streaming services has made music too disposable in the modern day. (I imagine that Nipsey Hussle, pioneer of the $100 limited release street album Crenshaw, probably has an interesting take on all of this.)
RZA and Cilvaringz seem genuine in their belief that this mythical “lost album” would solidify the legend of the Wu-Tang. RZA speculated offhand on one potential outcome, which is equal parts inspired and disheartening: “Maybe Richard Branson will just buy it and put it on one of his planes and send it to another planet. That’d be dope!” One’s left wondering whether the idea of artistic immortality or a multi-million dollar payout is the chief objective for the Abbott and his new apprentice.
Matt “Raz” Rasmussen is a writer, culture vulture, and podcast producer for the Loud Speakers Network living in Brooklyn. Follow him @mattRAZ.
1. Entrance (Intro) (1:57)
2. Rivals (4:12)
3. Staple Town Pt. 1 (Interlude) (0:44)
4. Ethiopia (7:55)
5. Handkerchief (0:49)
6. Staple Town Pt. 2 (Interlude) (1:10)
7. The Pillage of ’88 (6:52)
8. Centipedes (7:14)
9. The Widow’s Tear (3:55)
10. Sorrow (5:45)
1. Sustenance (Intro) (0:43)
2. Lions (6:08)
3. Since Time Immemorial (2:32)
4. The Slaughter Mill (6:31)
5. The Brute (3:24)
6. Iqra (7:23)
7. Flowers (5:49)
8. Poisoned Earth (4:34)
9. Shaolin (6:14)
10. Freedom [Interlude] (2:25)
11. The Sword Chamber (4:05)
12. Unique (2:32)
13. The Bloody Page (5:09)
14. The Saga Continuous (6:58)
15. Salaam (Outro) (1:31)
16. Shaolin Soul [Exit] (3:41)