Raekwon is, without a doubt, one of the most beloved and respected figures in hip-hop. He has a classic solo album under his belt (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., which I reviewed here), not to mention his involvement in the Wu-Tang Clan's ground-breaking 1993 debut, Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Throw in the fact that he released another critically acclaimed record, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II, in 2009, and you can see why The Chef is so well-renowned in the game.
Now we're in 2011, and, apparently, Raekwon is not done. He has now completed his fifth solo album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, to the delight of Wu fans everywhere. Although there is not a single RZA production on the project, Rae was still able to compile a who's who list of producers including Erick Sermon, The Alchemist, Evidence, Mathematics, DJ Khalil, Scram Jones, and even Khrysis. Raekwon also corralled an All-Star list of guest artists for the album, names like Nas, Lloyd Banks, and Black Thought (among his Wu-Tang brethren, of course) among them.
So, judging by that cast and The Chef's raw talent, how can you not expect great things from this album? I went in anticipating a sure-fire banger that would top what he did on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II and a project that would undoubtedly be one of the best to be released in the year 2011. I think essentially any rap fan would think the same.
Of course, there was also the possibility that Raekwon, like many of his other hip-hop comrades, was past his prime and simply could not dole out any more prize-worthy material, the saliva-inducing tracklisting aside. Which Rae would show up on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang? Let's find out.
1. Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang
The album kicks things off with the title track, which also happened to be the project's second single. You can feel the Wu-Tang atmosphere instantly, as a kung-fu sample is present at the beginning of the song, even if said sample runs a bit too long. As for the cut itself, it knocks. Scram Jones comes through with a ridiculously eerie and hard-hitting beat that could not suit Raekwon, who rips it, any better. What a way to get things going and establish the tempo.
2. Every Soldier In The Hood
Erick Sermon is on the boards for this record, producing a beat that doesn't really sound like anything he has made in the past. In this case, that's not necessarily a good thing, as the instrumental doesn't seem to have any kind of flow that would allow me to get into it. Method Man certainly makes a nice contribution as a guest artist, but E's beat is too meh for me to truly enjoy this track.
3. Silver Rings
Cilvaringz, a Wu-Tang affiliate, laces the beat for Rae and Ghostface Killah here, and while it is very short (spanning one minute and forty-eight seconds), it bangs and is the best instrumental I've heard on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang thus far. Why in the world The Chef decided to make this one of the album's shorter cuts is beyond me, because this sounds really, really good.
4. Chop Chop Ninja
I'm going to ignore the utter stupidity of the song's title (and the fact that it was produced by some guy named Bluerocks) and try to listen to this objectively. After an intro that lasts for about a minute, a hard, drum-driven beat kicks in, and a very relaxed Raekwon raps monotonously over it. Estelle, probably the last person you would ever expect to hear on a Wu-Tang cut, croons the hook, and, as I'm sure will not take you by surprise, does not fit in well with Rae and Inspectah Deck on this. Honestly, this is probably one of the worst songs I have ever heard The Chef do. Not only does Estelle sound out of place, but I completely forgot anything Deck had to say after listening to this. Plus, the production sucks.
5. Butter Knives
This was Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang's first single, and it was a solid choice, as Bronze Nazareth, a frequent Wu collaborator, lays down a decent beat for Raekwon, who sounds fantastic over it and actually draws your attention away from the instrumental; that's how good he sounds. This isn't one of my favorite songs on the project because I don't think the production is anything better than above average, but I certainly appreciated Rae's performance.
6. Snake Pond
Someone named Selasi produces the beat for Raekwon here, and he did a hell of a job, as the spooky instrumental fits The Chef's style very well. That's all I've got.
7. Crane Style
I don't know whether or not it's true, but I've heard that "Crane Style" is going to be released as a single. I don't see why it would be, as, regardless of the fact that it features Busta Rhymes, it is under two minutes long, and, to put it plainly, it just doesn't sound very good. The Scram Jones beat sounds like a knockoff of Sean Price's cut "Monkey Barz" off of, um, Monkey Barz, but, unlike Sean P's record, this just doesn't work.
8. Rock N Roll
This was the official third single, and it friggin bangs unbelievably. I never in my life thought I would like a song that includes both autotune and Jim Jones, but here I am. DJ Khalil's beat is so ill that it should be tested for swine flu (yeah; I know that was incredibly lame, but whatever), and Raekwon and Ghostface kill it. Oh, and Jim Jones actually doesn't ruin this. Great, great track.
9. Rich & Black
That brings us to the Nas feature. The beat was produced by Sean C and LV (another name for Diddy's "Hitmen"), and while it isn't spectacular, it's good enough where The Chef and Nas can do their thing over it. I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed in the track overall, as I expected much more from a Rae/Nasty Nas collaboration, but whatever; it's decent enough.
10. From The Hills
Kenny Dope (don't worry; I've never heard of him either) puts down a salsa-flavored beat for Raekwon and guest artists Method Man and Raheem DeVaughn here, and while it may sound out of place at first, it actually somewhat works. Both Rae and Meth sound solid, and Raheem's adlibs in the background add a nice touch (although his hook leaves much to be desired).
11. Last Trip To Scotland
Everything about this track is sick, from Scram Jones' street banger of a beat to the scintillating verses from Raekwon and Lloyd Banks. Rae outshined Banks on their collaboration on "Sooner or Later (Die 1 Day)" off of Banks' album, H.F.M. 2, but Banks returns the favor here, as he simply steals the show. Outstanding cut. I just wish it were a little longer.
12. Ferry Boat Killaz
The Alchemist gets the production credit on this, lacing a smooth, crawling instrumental for The Chef to do work on. The song is only two minutes in length, but it's certainly an impressive piece of material.
13. Dart School
I really, really dig this one. Mathematics' beat is actually pretty damn soulful (I love those harps), and it works wonders as Raekwon just tears it to shreds. "Dart School" is easily one of the best songs on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. It sounds different from anything Rae has done in the past, and the change is welcomed.
Xtreme's beat on this knocks (how sick are those kick drums?) and both The Chef and Ghostface (especially the latter) come correct. Also, Rick Ross, who I've never been a fan of, actually sounds pretty solid on this, too (the instrumental fits him like a glove). "Molasses" is a damn good cut.
15. The Scroll
Okay; this is the best song on the album; period. The beat, produced by Evidence and Khrysis, is absolutely phenomenal, possessing both soulful and street banger qualities at the same time (and how often can you say something like that?), and Rae just goes in on it. The combination of the sick production and The Chef's performance made for what turned out to be one of my favorite Raekwon joints ever, and that is saying a whole lot. Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang has certainly taken a hell of a turn for the better over these past several tracks.
16. Masters Of Our Fate
And the momentum continues. A dude named Tommy Nova lays down an incredible beat for Raekwon and Black Thought, and both of them oblige with admirable performances. "Masters Of Our Fate," along with "Rich & Black," was the song most hip-hop heads were looking forward to when the album's tracklisting first dropped, and it doesn't disappoint. This is a hell of a cut, and a hell of a way to close out Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang.
The second half of Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang saved it, and because of that second half, the album lived up to its lofty expectations. I was beginning to get very concerned after listening to the album early on, especially when "Rich & Black" did not even impress me all that much, but my interest in the project was re-lit as soon as Raekwon's collaboration with Lloyd Banks turned up.
Clearly, Rae has not even lost a step as a rapper. He has remained the same consistent, outstanding storyteller and grimy lyricist ever since he first stepped into the rap game, and his delivery never fails to catch the listener's ear. If anything was going to drag Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang down, it would have been the production, and, for a while, it looked like that was going to happen, but thankfully, some of the best instrumentals were yet to come at that point.
That isn't to say the entire first half of Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang bombed altogether, though. I liked the title track, and both "Silver Rings" and "Rock N Roll" sounded damn good. I guess I just expected "Rich & Black" to blow me away, and it didn't, hence my so-so feelings on the first 10 songs (and let's face it; "Chop Chop Ninja" was just atrocious).
Because the latter part of this album was so strong, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I enjoyed it a bit more than Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II. While I do think the preceding project was more consistent as a whole, I think Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang had the strongest tracks, as cuts like "The Scroll" and "Dart School" are still resonating in my mind as I write this. I guess the one major criticism I would have of the album was that a lot of the songs were too short, but meh.
I think we should definitely chalk Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang up as another success story of 2011. First, we had Saigon's The Greatest Story Never Told. Now, this. What's the next project to look at? Probably Pharoahe Monch's W.A.R., which is scheduled to drop in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned.
TOP FIVE TRACKS
1. The Scroll
2. Dart School
3. Last Trip To Scotland
4. Rock N Roll
5. Masters Of Our Fate
Chop Chop Ninja