Is Wu Tang's new album a diss to true fans?

african kings

If you’ve ever watched the drive-through kung-fu movies from the golden era of the 1980s, the action took place in verdant forests and far-flung, nondescript mountaintops.

Therein could the secrets of Shaolin –or whatever martial arts discipline du jour was on display– be discovered, harnessed and practiced to an art form.

It’s not hard to imagine that tableau as the setting for Wu Tang Clan’s latest brainchild. Hip-hop’s original monks of Shaolin (better known as Staten Island) surely must have been on the mountains of China when they conjured up the idea for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Perhaps they were partaking of Colorado and Washington’s newest commodity. Whatever the case, the rap legends have come up with a seriously outré idea: auctioning off their latest album as a single recording to the highest bidder.

In a statement on the album’s website that explains the strategy, the rap collective bemoaned what it called the “mass replication” that erodes both the value and quality of modern-day music. Putting themselves in the same class as the great art masters of yore Beethoven, Mozart and Bach (all in the same sentence, by the way), Wu Tang frets about an industry “in crisis.” Yet have no fear: Wu Tang is here to save music from its own debasement.

Historical context aside, the group’s members certainly don’t lack for a sense of grandeur. Robert “RZA” Diggs told that The Wu is “about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before…We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

That, and the ornate designer box the eventual lucky winner will receive along with the recording, is certainly a dramatic touch.

On one hand, the group should be applauded for breaking new ground in selling its music. A seller has identified a new way to use the open market to push a product. If interested parties ultimately have the means to bid on the commodity, he or she will wind up in sole possession of an extremely rare recording. In their rawest form, auctions are the ultimate expression of democratic Capitalism (just ask eBay), and are frequently employed to create markets for valuable artwork as well as unique collectibles. Not surprisingly, Wu Tang invokes Beyoncé’s surprise album, dropped in the dead of night with no advance press, as an inspiration for the auction format of their new album.

The music industry is in the throes of wrenching change, and virtually everyone recognizes this. So is Wu Tang’s strategy materially different, or even objectionable?

Put simply, yes. One of Wu Tang’s chief complaints is that the wide availability of music has diminished its intrinsic value, and made people less apt to appreciate it. Meanwhile, the industry has spurred cookie-cutter imitators whose sole aim is commercial success, which the public rewards.

Wu-heads should be spitting nails in fury, because the flaws in the group’s logic are fairly obvious, not to mention self-serving. First off, by appropriating this strategy, the Clan has effectively turned their back on the fan base that catapulted them to fame in the first place. Fans, and your writer counts himself among them, are being deprived of the chance to own a part of the group’s lengthy history. Moreover, just because you own the recording doesn’t give you the right to share it with others on a broad scale.

This is a sticking point because, unlike more visual or tactile works of art, musical appreciation is in the listening. Accordingly, a curated album lacks the same cultural heft as a painting or a sculpture, because very few people will be able to weigh its value against its peers or predecessors. The bidding process all but guarantees the price tag for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin will be prohibitive: unless you have a bank account that rivals a hedge fund manager or an entertainment mogul, you’ll probably have to pass on this one.

Some of the industry’s most reliable chart-toppers are Queen Bey herself, who literally shattered sales records and almost broke the Internet with her December release; her husband (of course); Kanye West – don’t even bother trying to tell him he doesn’t deserve a place in the top pantheon of artistic geniuses; and Eminem, who even the estimable Camille Paglia calls a true artist.

Imagine the uproar if Apple decided to manufacture a single iteration of its latest device only to sell it to the highest bidder. Mass production is impersonal and prone to all sorts of abuses. Warts and all, however, it’s the best medium for performers to transmit their work to the masses. Most importantly, it allows the court of reality to be the final arbiter of an artist’s worth. If all of the above can be insanely successful commercially and be artistic, then why can’t The Wu?

The answer isn’t that hard to discern. A group of highly talented yet ultimately past-their-prime rappers—who have had a hard time maintaining their hold on the public’s imagination and haven’t topped the charts in more than a decade – finds a gimmick that can get them press and make them some money at the same time.

All things considered, Wu Tang’s claims of musical reinvention ring awfully hollow. Cash, not artistry or creativity, really does rule everything. Dollar, dollar bill, y’all.