A great fifth album from the Wu-Tang rapper, but not quite another catalogue classic.
Mike Diver 2011
One of the few Wu-Tang rappers to have successfully forged a critically validated solo career, Corey Woods aka Raekwon has been riding a fresh wave of respect since 2009’s sequel to his acclaimed 1995 debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Shaolin vs Wu-Tang, the man’s fifth LP in total, lacks the consistency and truly focused lyrical content of its predecessor, but should be considered another success amongst so many mundane releases in the Wu-family catalogue.
Lyrical themes are conventional to the extent where tropes appear so well-thumbed that it can be hard to pick out a metaphorical ninja between all the inky smudges, high-kicking kung-fu flick samples no different from those heard so long ago. But if Raekwon can confess to the charge of sticking to his comfort zone conceptually, then he at least has the sense to maintain standards high enough to ensure that familiarity gets nowhere near contempt. He’s a rap hero worth rooting for still, steady syllables sliding between slippery beats in a style that can’t be taught – and it’s this innate ability that’s guided him to such an impressive scene standing, almost 20 years after the Wu’s still-arresting 36 Chambers.
While the supporting cast here is impressive – turns from Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, Nas and The Roots’ Black Thought are forcefully pitched into proceedings – it’s our prime protagonist who holds attentions with the tightest grip courtesy of typically dense and detailed wordplay. Admirable work indeed, given the quality of contributors around him – and this quality extends to the production, too. Erick Sermon of EPMD fame mans the desk for Method Man-featuring early highlight Every Soldier in the Hood; and DJ Khalil, behind excellent work on Eminem’s Recovery LP, filters fizzy beats through the low-end thunder of Rock n Roll. Both are rumbling, raucous cuts that could decorate any rap show playlist and immediately improve its content ten-fold.
But while the sinister string samples and mystical talk of fantastical warriors is as good here as it’s been on any previous Raekwon album, there’s the nagging feeling that Shaolin vs Wu-Tang is rather lacking in longevity potential compared to the pair of Cuban Linx releases in its maker’s back pocket. In the catalogue of a lesser artist, this would shine brightly – from the sweet soul vibe of From the Hills, via Dart School’s harp-accompanied diatribe, to Butter Knives’ treacle-thick backbeat: there’s much to enjoy. But the Chef’s a little better than this, and has proved it enough times in the past, meaning that this goes down as very good rather than another outstanding offering.