20 years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan released their second studio album, Wu-Tang Forever. It is no exaggeration to state that the double-disc release was one of the most highly-anticipated releases in hip-hop history. Four years removed from their debut album, aside from the double-disc approach, the most noticeable change in the Wu sound was from the RZA, who maintained what people loved about the first album – the Shaolin samples, the unrelenting rhyming displays from his fellow Wu members – but also advanced the sound with a more cinematic approach.
In the end, the Wu wasn’t forever, but their sophomore album remains a triumph; one that more than lived up to its expectations and has aged extremely well in the two decades since. 20 years later, it’s still incredible to hear lyrical highlights like Inspectah Deck on “Triumph” and Ghostface Killah on “Impossible.” Better still are moments like hearing Method Man’s presence, Masta Killa’s calm precision, O.D.B.’s personality and Raekwon’s bravado. On such an important anniversary, now is as good a time as any to travel back and look at the high points of one of the greatest hip-hop records of all-time.
1. It was released at the height of the double album trend in hip-hop.
Double album releases in 1997 included The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s The Art of War among others. It was part of a growing trend in the late ’90s for artists and groups in hip-hop to release double discs. Most of those releases were panned for having quantity over quality. Wu-Tang Forever was no different, although with the size of the group, it did allow for more room for some of the lesser known rappers at the time — including Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa — to get their shine.
2. The album included what RZA believed to be the greatest Wu-Tang verse ever written.
RZA has called Ghostface’s “Impossible” verse the greatest Wu-Tang verse ever written. It also received “Verse of the Year” honors from The Source. The verse is truly Ghostface at his best, with his vivid storytelling on full display in a monologue that recounts the final minutes of his childhood friend Jamie who has just been shot. The verse goes through some of their favorite memories together and ends with Jamie being pronounced dead. No one wrote more cinematic verses than the Killah.
3. GZA’s first line on “As High As Wu Tang Gets” was more ironic than most thought.
When GZA said “Yo, too many songs, weak rhymes that’s mad long, make it brief son, half short and twice strong” on “As High As Wu Tang Gets,” it was verbal assault on the rest of the industry. But it also reflected what some felt about the Wu’s second album, which did not have the same cohesiveness as 36 Chambers.
4. The album included what many consider one of the best opening verses ever.
When Inspectah Deck followed O.D.B.’s intro on “Triumph” and set it off with “I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses can’t define how I be droppin’ these mockeries,” it immediately went down as one of the best openings to a rap song in recent memory (possibly ever). The fact that eight other Wu members followed the Rebel-INS on the song but none outshined his opening salvo is just as impressive.
5. RZA was at his shit-talking best on the disc two intro.
The Wu were never afraid to remind their competitors where they stood, and RZA devoted the intro to disc two to doing just that: talking about how a lot of people at the time tried to take hip-hop and “make that shit & rapping bullshit,” essentially telling the entire industry to stop biting their style as a whole. The Wu were creating their own lane, but they also never skipped a chance to make themselves known.
6. “Reunited” was originally only going to be a RZA and GZA song.
The first actual track on the album, “Reunited,” has a cinematic feel to it; the unofficial return of the Wu as a group together. However, as Method Man told Complex in 2011, the song was originally supposed to a RZA and GZA song only, but Meth got in the studio, heard the track, and hopped on for a verse. The final version also included an appearance from O.D.B.
7. While “Triumph” is celebrated, Method Man had a different take on the iconic song.
In that same interview with Complex, Method Man reflected on “Triumph” and said the following: “‘Triumph’ was like, all the pressure of the name being bigger than the group and everybody smelling themselves and thinking they were bigger than they really was. You can hear all that on ‘Triumph.’ By the middle of the album, focus was being lost.”
8. “Triumph” was unlike other radio single releases.
While 36 Chambers was a critically acclaimed underground hit, it did spawn popular mainstream singles like “Protect Ya Neck,” “Method Man” and “C.R.E.A.M.” For Wu-Tang Forever, RZA decided he would run with a six minute, chorus-less song featuring nine rappers in “Triumph” as the album’s lead single. At a time when Puff Daddy and more radio-friendly records were dominating the scene, RZA stuck to his vision, and it worked.
9. The “Triumph” video remains iconic.
We can let this speak for itself.
10. Wu-Tang Forever was part of RZA’s long-term five-year plan.
Wu-Tang Forever was the culmination of RZA’s five-year plan, which included creating a distinctive sound for the group, a visual brand (today, the “W” remains one of the most recognizable symbols in music iconography) and getting the group to the top of the charts. “I used the bus as an analogy,” RZA told NPR in 2013. “I said, ‘I want all of y’all to get on this bus. And be passengers. And I’m the driver. And nobody can ask me where we going. I’m taking us to No. 1. Give me five years, and I promise that I’ll get us there.'”
11. It was the first time RZA relinquished production control.
Ever the perfectionist, Wu-Tang Forever marked a turning point for RZA, who had previously overseen all of the mastering and production for Wu-Tang joints himself. This time around, he allowed Inspectah Deck, 4th Disciple and True Master to step up to the plate.
12. The camaraderie with the group was at an all-time high.
In a 1997 SPIN feature, members of the Wu spoke on the recording process, one that saw them take the title of the album very literally. The group believed this would really be a forever thing. “We already know that we’re going to be together for the rest of our lives, growing old together,” Raekwon said. “We done put in our vows like that, man.” Added Inspectah Deck: “We made it to here as a whole, so we’re going to go out as a whole. We’re not dealing with the four devils—no envy, lust, greed, or hate. It’s not about us, it’s about the Wu-Tang Clan, and there’s babies after us.”
13. However, RZA pinpointed the making of the album as when the group started to decline.
Asked by Angus Batey on The Quietus on when he felt like the Wu started to decline, RZA had a clear answer. “Oh, I can pinpoint it exactly,” he told them. “1997, when we was recording Wu-Tang Forever. Before, it was kinda like I was forcin’ people to do it; I can even remember having physical threats. I remember some brothers didn’t get along with other brothers in the beginning, and I had to say, ‘Nah, we treat each other like brothers’. But also, as people grow, you start changing. When I let that go, I kinda let go a little bit of the whole Wu-Tang. And it’s hard to get that back, ‘cos now you’re dealin’ with nine generals.”
14. Between studio albums, nearly all of the individual Wu member released a game-changing solo record.
After Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) changed the hip-hop landscape, the Wu set about leaving their footprint on the industry with a series of successful solo releases. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, released in 1995, is considered one of the most carefully-constructed rap albums ever. Similar praise have been given to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Ghostface Killah’s Ironman, Method Man’s Tical and GZA’s Liquid Swords.
15. The album did very well commercially.
RZA’s plan, of course, came to fruition. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. 612,000 copies were sold in the first week, and the album was certified 4 times platinum before the end of 1997.
16. At the time, the enhanced CD component was a huge part of the promotional roll-out.
I’m (un)fortunately old enough to remember going to the local music store to pick up compact discs on Tuesdays (or cassettes as a cheaper option if I wanted to plead with my parents to let me pick up two albums), so I definitely remember how big of a deal enhanced CDs were back in the day. Popping the Wu-Tang Forever disc into your CD-Rom allowed you access to the Wu Mansion, with rooms that represented each member.
17. Using tracks from the record costs a pretty penny.
Because of sample clearances, Wu songs have been notoriously hard to clear for use, as Damon Lindelof – co-creator of HBO’s The Leftovers – found out when he tried to clear a song for the show in its final season. The show’s musical supervisor, Liza Richardson, spent two months trying to clear songs from GZA’s Liquid Swords. Eventually, Lindelof and Richardson were able to clear “Triumph,” “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” and “C.R.E.A.M.” for $30,000 and used “Protect Ya Neck” for a scene on the show.
18. Drake’s 2013 song “Wu-Tang Forever” was met with mixed reviews from the group.
The track was released on Drake’s Nothing Was The Same album, and references “It’s Yourz.” Inspectah Deck did not think highly of the song title, saying the song should have just been called “It’s Yourz” if that’s what it was referencing, and had no interest in being on any remix of the song. Raekwon had a different tone, praising Drake for giving love and respect to the Wu.
19. The group celebrated the 20th anniversary of the album at Governor’s Ball in June.
Performing at a set built to replicate the Park Hills Projects of Staten Island where the group grew up, RZA, Ghostface Killah and the GZA and other members of the Wu performed classics in front of the New York crowd at Governor’s Ball, including “Triumph.”
20. It remains their best-selling album to date.
In spite of a plethora of notable albums to their name, Wu-Tang Forever is still the best-selling work of their career.
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- Text: Alex Wong
- Cover Image: Wu-Tang Clan