It's a shame that, having snapped some of Wu-Tang's most memorable stanzas, Inspectah Deck still operates in the shadow of his colossal Clansmen. With his searing opener on "Triumph" and scene-stealing contributions to "Protect Ya Neck" and "C.R.E.A.M.," as well as a hatful of phenomenal cameos on his Wu brethren's solo efforts, Deck became renowned for his tongue-in-cheek namedropping, his elaborate wordplay, and lucid flow. But for all his talent as an emcee, his standalone releases have been met with lukewarm critical response and ice-cold commercial reception, including 1999's criminally undervalued Uncontrolled Substance. Assuming executive production duties on the record and roping in familiar Wu affiliates for some much-needed marquee power, Manifesto is Deck's latest stab at emerging from that immense W-shaped shadow.
Once again, though, it seems Deck is disoriented without his Staten Island militia, struggling to sustain energy or engagement when working independently. These tracks, of which there are far too many, suffer universally from bland production and too often from uninspired lyricism. Manifesto's middle sector limps through a series of lifeless beats bereft of both grit and groove, hitting rock bottom with the tacky metal guitar of "Serious Rappin'" and the irksome chipmunk refrain of "Crazy." The rest of the songs are built on forgettable piano and string samples supplemented by deep synths and littered with cameo appearances that are predominantly unremarkable.
Following last year's exceptional Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II, on which Deck proved his mettle with three outstanding contributions, it comes as no surprise that Raekwon is summoned to endow Manifesto with his Midas touch. The pair exchange solid deliveries on "The Big Game," but they're wasted on a grating electronic loop and AC's woeful vocal hook. The cheap production work deflates the track completely, and such problems continue later on in the album, underlining the absence of an omnipresent producer to provide The Manifesto with a consistent sound.
The album does have some decent moments though. It's just unfortunate that they're all exhausted by the record's 20-minute mark. "P.S.A" may boast the deepest and darkest synth line Deck has graced to date, and he does so with a duly belligerent poise; lines like "I'm wild like Clifton Powell/Grammar tight like Vanna White hands how I flip the vowel" illustrate his penchant for pert pop-culture references even on his most brooding numbers. "The Champion" stands out for its unique rhyme scheme, in which Deck assonates his words with those that immediately follow: "I scream/Machine gun/Funk/Trunk slayer/Major pain/Game hunter." In less capable hands it could well sound contrived or nonsensical, but it's a testament to Deck's technical prowess that it works compellingly.
It's after moments like this, when the Park Hill emcee spits so innovatively and with such conviction, that the album's entrenched mediocrity becomes even more frustrating. And so, despite being such a pivotal figure in the '90s East Coast hip-hop renaissance, an iconic solo album still eludes Deck. Without the oversight or contributions from RZA, Manifesto feels like the album that has strayed furthest from the fundamental Wu-Tang sound, which is regrettable considering Deck's tendency to excel when faced with those chopped-up soul samples and obscure kung-fu movie quotes.