The fallout from Wu-Tang Clan’s last album, which has found several of the group’s members battling over ownership of its signature mythology, has also helped to point out which of them haven’t fully left the nest. The two main objectors to the production on 8 Diagrams were Raekwon and Ghostface, both disavowing any connection to the album after its release, reporting their intention to make their own Wu-Tang project without group mastermind RZA. For Ghostface, who’s hopped from one weird permutation to another in his successful career, the group’s kung fu symbols are just another set of toys, but they appear to be a more serious issue for Raekwon, who spends the entirety of Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang trying to wrest control of the group’s classic signifiers into his own hands.
RZA appropriately makes no appearance here, meaning Rakewon abandons the chunky funk-soul concoctions of his two Cuban Linx albums. Instead he sets out to co-opt and ape the signature Wu-Tang sound, a chop-socky blend of martial arts sound clips, gang-feud lyricism, and materialist nihilism. The opening title track pulls another audio quote from Shaolin and Wu-Tang, the movie that gave the group their name and has fueled much of their subsequent imagery. “Kung-fu doesn’t belong to anyone, it evolves,” a man shouts, and it’s hard not to read this as a direct jab at the man most responsible for managing the group’s sound.
Even without RZA, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is still something of a family affair, though the guest spots seem limited to those sympathetic with Raekwon’s complaints (Ghostface shows up three times) and inveterate peacekeepers like Method Man. ODB gets inserted from beyond the grave, appearing in a brief sample. But other voices are notably absent, creating intimations of a brewing civil war.
The success level here largely depends on the producers’ ability to hit the expected marks, making this an exercise in direct imitation. The opener, with its pulsing strings and cinematic orchestral flourishes, is the most successful. But the scattershot collection of new names and old hands inevitably has mixed results. Missteps include “Every Soldier in the Hood,” with Erick Sermon attempting to resurrect Liquid Swords-style chiaroscuro, with a solemn guitar strum and a chanted hook. “Rock N Roll,” which makes a tired comparison between making music with selling drugs (in this case joking about selling crack “rocks” named after rock stars), only serves to play up the moldiness of its conceits, namely the talk of dealing for a guy who’s at least 20 years out of the game. This is only made worse by the conspicuously flagging Jim Jones, who shouts out the Diplomats, another crew with a recent history of in-fighting, as if the group’s name still had relevance.
Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang at least feels more complete than the hastily prepared Wu-Massacre, the first shot fired in this conflict. But by attempting to break free from his group’s guru, Raekwon inevitably only proves how vital RZA has been to nearly everything its members have produced, and how Raekwon has been unable to break free from his influence.