As with any good collective, the strength of the Wu-Tang Clan at their peak was rooted in a tidy sort of balance, one which hinged on the interplay between distinctly different personalities, all bundled together under RZA's amorphously parasitic production style. The group's recent strife, ensuing from its members' dissatisfaction with their producer's level of control, has been a rebellion against that balance, the kind of dissatisfied grumbling that often accompanies an internal stratification of success. The desire for self-assertion is understandable, considering how many of these guys have long histories of quality solo efforts, accomplishments which might reasonably entitle them to greater creative control, or more than a one-eighth's share of the group dynamic.
This conflict has led to the formation of Wu-Block, originally a collaboration between the Clan and fellow NYC classicists the LOX (also known as D-Block) that, for a variety of reasons, has been whittled down to a mostly two-man effort between Ghostface Killah and Sheek Louch. Ghostface makes for a fitting Wu-Tang spokesperson, possessing one of the group's most clearly defined personalities, a savvy mixture of gritty, detail-obsessed crime narrative, crude humor, and mocking nihilism. He's also released more proper albums (eight) than any other Wu-Tang member, the general reliability of which has made him one of rap's most consistently potent elder statesmen.
Still, the scarcity of voices handicaps Wu-Block, what with its laidback interaction between Ghostface and Louch, resulting in an album that feels satisfying on a basic level, but also markedly limited in effect. The clearest issue is that Louch proves less a fitting foil than a willing sidekick. The two amplify each other's personalities, for better and for worse, turning Wu-Block into a middling collection of holdover '90s East Coast rap leavened with a sharp vein of off-kilter, sometimes nasty humor.
As on Ghostface's solo albums, the best moments here operate at a nexus between acrobatic wordplay, joyful nostalgia, and grumpy eccentricity: an ode to faithful firearms of yore on "Guns for Life"; invocations of grandmothers, "thunderbutts," and onion-and-garlic nasal cleanses; and satisfyingly specific nods to blunt brands and beverage choices. The album is split between imaginary returns to the world of rough-and-tumble drug peddling, with the two MCs reveling in recalling a period lifestyle they either took part in or aspired to, and descriptions of their current affluence.
Past and present sometimes blend together, with digressions about the state of Ghostface's nose after snorting lines off antique furniture at the Waldorf and semi-anachronistic mentions of Gucci slippers and Italian denim in a crack-bagging flashback. This cross-bleeding between the worlds of project-tower drug cooking and high-end hotel suites can be weirdly fascinating, but there's the distinct sense that Ghostface and Louch have barred themselves in the tree house of their collective imaginary past, subsisting on an immature diet of inside jokes and mean-spirited political incorrectness. Songs like "Been Robbed" and "Stick Up Kids" aren't just musically familiar, they're regressive, increasingly tedious examples of thematic exhaustion, recorded by men in their mid 40s still clinging to the silly dictates of a life which they've long since escaped.
It's worth noting that the Wu-Tang civil war erupted in the aftermath of 2007's 8 Diagrams, which found RZA ranging further afield from his traditional meat-and-potatoes soul-sampling. Nearly all the members protested this change, with the loudest dissent coming from the group's most established voices: Ghostface, Raekwon, and Method Man. They exploited this issue, using it as an excuse to confront growing discomfort with RZA's level of control over Wu-Tang's sound. Yet for whatever megalomaniacal methods the group's de facto leader may have employed, he's also the only one actively committed to advancing as an artist, pushing boundaries rather than churning out different variations on the same material.
So while Ghostface and Louch gel nicely as partners, neither pushes the other toward any standard of greatness or progress. Though other MCs of their generation have pressed past shopworn hood narratives into new territory, these two are still dreaming of their presumptive glory days, even if they're far more successful and established now than ever. This leaves Wu-Block as a hangout project, a low-impact collaboration between two like-minded jesters, each coming out of a similar location and era, each using the other to reinforce the viability of their stalwart, backward-facing style.