Anna Minard claims to "know nothing about music." For this column, we force her to listen to random records by artists considered to be important by music nerds.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Why hadn't I listened to Wu-Tang Clan before now? I DON'T KNOW! Missing this one seems extra-pathetic. It should've materialized somewhere, at some point, at some basement party, in somebody's car stereo, on somebody's mixtape. Nope! A couple of these sound vaguely familiar, because of how your ears still exist in the world even if you're not paying attention. But this is a real introduction.
Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothing to fuck with, you guys. They bring the ruckus. They are going to stab you in the TONGUE. And they're so tough, they can rap about ridiculous stuff and still sound serious: They spell, they rap the phrases "a tisket, a tasket" and "green eggs and ham." There's an I'm-rubber-and-you're-glue line. They rap about baking, eating, and sharing cake. Seriously!
They're also poets: There's a distinct appreciation of words with quick rhythm and hard consonants—sure, everything's peppered with "motherfuckers" and threats, but there's more weight behind a fast-spat word like "hectic" than behind a million tumbling curses. They sample melancholy female vocals (Gladys Knight, says the internet) to weave low-key nostalgia. They're not afraid to rhyme "diarrhea" with "gonorrhea," ferchrissake. But it's still political: Both the Emancipation Proclamation and "black unemployment" make appearances, spanning centuries.
Another thing: They're named after a 1980s Hong Kong martial-arts movie (clips are sampled throughout)—a rad crossover between two different cultural versions of swaggering badassery. A hiphop crew flaunting bravado borrows narrative from sword-wielding kung fu students on a quest to avenge a master's death? Yesss.
Over and over, the beats they use are simple and impossibly repetitive. Slightly layered, sure, very deliberate, not boring, but this is about spotlighting voices and themes. There's a lot of beat-free space. People chat, laugh, make sound effects, brag about each other, build different personalities.
The five seconds of piano and drums sampled on "C.R.E.A.M." lies under the whole three-and-half-minute song, a twirl running up and down like a little kid at piano practice. And maybe that one proves their total domination the best? A rap about how money rules everything over the most ridiculously stripped-down sample, something so simple, you could teach it to a competent fifth-grader. And yet put together, it all feels genius and cocky and musical and smart as fuck.
There's no point in an "if you've never heard this" because I checked, and it turns out I'm the last human on the planet never to have listened to this album. Thanks for finally inviting me to the party! I give this a "strap on your swords" out of 10.