In the last 25 years, the Wu-Tang Clan has become part of the cultural wallpaper, a presence more passively felt than actively appreciated. These days, the most exciting thing about a new Wu-Tang album is the drama surrounding its creation and release. For 2014’s A Better Tomorrow, it was the intra-Clan scuffling that nearly derailed the group’s first album in seven years. For 2015’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, it was the controversial decision to press a single copy of the album, sell it to the highest bidder, and then watch in horror as the buyer turned out to be one of the world’s worst people.
Maybe it’s the absence of such a spectacular backstory that resulted in The Saga Continues dropping this week with relatively little fanfare. Or, more cynically, maybe it’s because the album, like most released under the Wu umbrella since 2007’s 8 Diagrams, is only tenuously a “proper” Wu-Tang effort. The original announcement by RZA is a master class in PR obfuscation, describing the album as a “body of music” by affiliated producer Mathematics, “with vocal performances by Wu-Tang Clan members and other MCs.” Later, both Raekwon and Method Man declined to discuss the album when contacted by Spin magazine; Masta Killa endorsed the project but admitted that he recorded his verses at least two years ago.
Enjoying this album will depend on your tolerance for Wu-Tang at its most generic. Mathematics has studied at the feet of RZA, and only rarely strays from his master’s trademark sound: Trembling Blaxploitation soundtrack-style strings, plinking pianos, and kung-fu film samples abound, all courtesy of the Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard. The result is consistent but unambitious: Where A Better Tomorrow tried and failed to reinvent Wu-Tang for the 21st century, The Saga Continues is content to recycle decades-old sounds. At its best—the Method Man-featuring “If Time Is Money,” the laidback, soulful “People Say”—it succeeds in sounding like the Wu-Tang Clan we know and love. At its worst—the awkward infusions of ersatz contemporary R&B on “Why, Why, Why,” “G’d Up,” and “My Only One”—it feels as out of touch with classic Wu-Tang as the rest of the album is with the contemporary moment.
The Saga Continues is a patently unnecessary one. The majority of the Clan remain skilled wordsmiths, but they don’t have much to say: a few rote references to the police brutality epidemic here, a toothless name-check to their aforementioned “pharma bro” patron there. Even the title is deeply uninspired, like it was generated by a Wu-Tang album-naming algorithm. This may be enough to satisfy the ’90s purists and the Shaolin faithful, but for the rest of us, it’s hard to recommend—especially after last year, when Wu contemporaries A Tribe Called Quest came out of an even longer period of dormancy with some of the most vital, relevant music of their career.