A Look At: The Wu-Tang Clan’s Breakout Albums

Loaded Lineup

Following the widespread acclaim and quick cult following of group effort Enter the Wu-Tang, the Wu-Tang Clan took no breaks in propelling their careers further. No more than a year later, an iconic wave of solo albums from the Wu-Tang members were released, including:

Tical, by Method Man
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, by Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, by Raekwon
Liquid Swords, by GZA
– and Ironman, by Ghostface Killah

All featuring production from de-facto leader RZA and guest appearances from various other members, the several records have been classified as pseudo-group efforts worth comparing. With the sixteenth anniversary of the first, Tical, being not too long ago, it seems fitting to devote some time to reflecting on these classics and how well they’ve stood against the test of time; from least to most.


5. Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)

Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s effort is just as eccentric as he is; in a team of sinister gangsters, Dirty brought a lighthearted energy that combatted the clan’s grim aesthetic. Return to the 36 Chambers is the embodiment of such, playing out like a comedy that highlights the misadventures of our goofy character.

This placement is, by no means, intended to be disrespectful. Without an album like this, eccentric personalities in the culture (i.e. Danny Brown) would not be present. However, its head-on approach opens just as many opportunities for a misstep as a mark, and Dirty’s vibrancy was dampened too many times on this record.

The album’s sound is grimy and low-key, which is expected of RZA; however, it conflicts with Dirty’s style. His ability to ride these beats and maintain his entertaining persona is a talent, but more vitality is desired.

“Shame on a Nigga” off Enter the Wu-Tang was a perfectly animated layout for Dirty to take the stage, and these sort of standout moments were sought after. “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is a great example of such being maintained, but that does not offset the inconsistencies in energy. Regardless of this, Return is irreplaceable, and can be considered a classic in its own twisted manner.

Favorite Tracks: “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, “Baby C’mon”, “Brooklyn Zoo”


4. Ironman (1996)

The debut of my favorite member, and a hint at what was to be expected from one of the greatest. Bombastic and careless, Ironman is the superhero tale of Ghost celebrating himself. He hustles, boasts, and spits with no filter.

While it isn’t quite as refined or diverse as his later works, this album brings his personality out in full essence. His loud delivery and toxic subject matter ensures every song slams face-first, which is only boosted by RZA’s particularly high-energy production on this album.

Rarely will Ghost go for a more introspective approach, but tracks like “All That I Got Is You” prove his pen game has flavor. He can balance woeful reflection with ignorant anthems, and the realization that these talents were only improved upon with time is mind-blowing.

Favorite Tracks: “Iron Maiden”, “260”, “Fish”


3. Tical (1994)

Perhaps the most underrated of the classic Wu era, Tical takes the darkness of Enter the Wu-Tang and amplifies it to create a muddy, slightly experimental boom bap record that leaves no opportunities wasted.

Based off former single “Method Man”, expectations for Tical would involve vigor and high-energy instrumentals. Meth brings his delivery down a notch, though, and often trades speed for focused blasts of bars and quotables.

This album’s tracklist is particularly addictive. It supplies everything needed in a record of its time; the hit love song (“All I Need”), back-and-forth duel (“Meth Vs. Chef”), and even a remix of his infamous self-titled track.

All of this is packed into a quick fourty-four minutes, ensuring the experience does not drag on under any circumstances. It ends just as strong as it begins, and the middle-ground deep cuts are just as worth returning to.

Favorite Tracks: “All I Need”, “Sub Crazy”, “Bring the Pain”


2. Liquid Swords (1995)

Liquid Swords‘ degree of acclaim has led to it having a strict following among the most analytical of critics. This is fitting, considering the album itself is calculated and layered, littered with gems to absorb.

The Genius has always been the main lyricist of the group, and his fondness of creative bars shines on this record. Each track is dedicated to a vastly different theme; “Labels” is a straight diss to the industry, and “Killah Hills 10304” provides a unique take on the drug-dealing lifestyle.

This is perhaps where RZA’s production hit a peak in cleanliness, providing crisp beats which huge emphasis on samples and – as of late – synths. This sonic palette actually brings the best out in GZA, allowing the focus to be directed towards his jewels of knowledge.

With such a small tracklist size and consistency in quality, there aren’t many hip-hop records that can knock Liquid Swords down. It’s only its biggest internal competitor, and one of the most revered debut albums of all-time, that managed to surpass it on this list.

Favorite Tracks: “4th Chamber”, “Living In the World Today”, “Labels”


1. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995)

The most influential album to emerge from Wu-Tang’s legacy is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, which essentially shaped the direction of late-90’s hip-hop. Raekwon’s mafioso personality spun a new take on gangsta rap, ensuring listeners noticed the lavishness as much as the street origin.

Ghostface Killah, who appears on twelve of seventeen tracks, plays the side character; his confidence contrasts with Raekwon’s collected character, making for a dual dynamic that to this day has not been topped by many.

The album is flavorful in both sound and lyricism, with cinematic beats truly reminiscent of a crime movie. Many infamous lyrical cuts are scattered throughout the tracklist, including the smooth “Criminology” and Nas Escobar-featuring “Verbal Intercourse”.

The true reason this album hits the top of the Wu-Tang Killah Hill is because of how fulfilling it is. For its length, it does not once feel too bloated, and offers the perfect bulk of content to witness the most of Rae and Ghost’s potential. This excellence is what allowed it to influence so many following hip-hop classics, and it is a staple album in every way possible.

Favorite Tracks: “Wisdom Body”, “Knowledge God”, “Ice Cream”


Overview

  1. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
  2. Liquid Swords
  3. Tical
  4. Ironman
  5. Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

Regardless of this ranking, it is clear these five albums are all unique and classic-status in their own matter. Any distinct ranking is valid by all means, and this prime era is one that will be remembered for generations.

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