Raekwon returns and proves Wu Tang sound is here stay

REVIEW - Besides Jay-Z, you'd be hard pressed to name another New York rapper that's hotter or more relevant right now...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Who would’ve guessed that nearly 20 years after their inception the New York hip-hop community would still look to a member of the Wu-Tang Clan to be their flag-bearer?

Raekwon’s latest album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang hits stores and online retailers today and the 41-year old, reinvigorated from the success of 2009’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II, returns to a musical landscape not necessarily desperate for his voice but certainly in need of a change of pace. Even if that change is actually something we’ve all heard before.

What Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II did, more so than making Raekwon a current and viable collaborator, it in many ways introduced him to an new audience of listeners maybe unfamiliar with the Wu catalog or even the solo albums he built his name on.

The biggest departure from his last album is the absence of the RZA’s production. “Bobby Digital” doesn’t produce a single song on the project and while Raekwon insists there is no beef, many will remember that this was initially planned to be a new Wu-Tang album before Raekwon got the members from Staten Island together to create what became Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, his fifth solo studio album.

Besides Jay-Z, you’d be hard pressed to name another New York rapper that’s hotter or more relevant right now. With that, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang plays to some specific strengths.

Combining an aesthetic that’s classically New York without being too elitist to have Southern stars like Rick Ross drop features, Raekwon managed to create a project that gives listeners a dose of something old and something new.

The familiar faces are there. Fellow Wu-Tang members Method Man, Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck make multiple appearances while other Empire State heavy hitters like Nas, Jim Jones and Busta Rhymes also eat verses on the album.

In terms of production, RZA’s absence didn’t leave a glaring hole in the album you may have expected and thankfully the producers who did contribute didn’t just create RZA-like knockoffs. The great what-if still remains the rumored tracks Raekwon had with Kanye West and Eminem missing from the final product.From the onset, you’re experience something sonically Wu, complete with Kung Fu movie snippets to move the story along. “Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang” and “Every Soldier in the Hood” doesn’t disappoint in that regard being street without feeling forced. “Silver Rings” continues the flow but detours with the sort of off lyrics like Ghostface spitting about chilling at the U.S. Open. That’s a long way from rapping around a burning barrel in the early 90s.

Estelle and Inspectah Deck join Rae on “Chop Chop Ninja” which feels disjointed while still being listenable. “Butter Knives” had no features but was one of my favorites on the album which aside from the skits had the fat trimmed way down with the bulk of the tracks clocking in under three minutes.

Busta Rhymes felt like the Busta Bust of old on “Crane Style” while Ghostface and Jim Jones absolutely beast “Rock ‘N Roll” where the chorus pays homage to the likes of Mick Jagger, Bon Jovi and The Greatful Dead. Even overcoming the near plug puller of Jim Jones declaring The Diplomats would be bigger than The Beatles.

“Rich & Black” with Nas is a turning point in the album where it begins to mellow out in an amazing way. Soulful, horn-driven beats follow as “From the Hills” with Raheem DeVaughn and Method Man and the grimey “Last Trip to Scotland” with Lloyd Banks epitomize. Banks manages to match Raekwon’s storytelling verse on the track.

The Alchemist-produced “Ferry Boat Killaz” and Mathematics produced “Dart School” are New York hip-hop in the most vintage way. Vivid, raw and low-key over beats that make you want to put on a flight jacket and pair of Timbs.

Rick Ross manages to drop his signatures and again avoid sounding inauthentic in between Raekwon and Ghostface on “Molasses”, with its soulful horns and straight-forward drums.

LA’s Evidence, most famous from being a member of Dialated Peoples, produces something stark, dope but different on “The Scroll” while Black Thought of The Roots spits on “Masters of Our Fate” a Braveheart or Gladiator worthy score that closes the album out.

Raekwon executes the concept of his album effortlessly. Two battling schools within one another, one proving it can stand without the other, while not neglecting the fact the opposition is one in the same.

It’s almost genius. By sticking to what he does best, Raekwon works to disprove the theory that artists eventually fall off, because he’s not getting artsy or experimental, he’s just shining in his extended prime, dropping another solid album, as if you’d expect anything less. While created in the midst of turmoil, he managed to uphold the Wu-Tang name. No complaints here.