Hip Hop Poetics: The Collective Power of Wu-Tang Clan

Hip hop occupies a stable space within the contemporary music scene; it is a flourishing musical form that holds equal weight with other genres such as metal and punk as being rooted in counterculture and serving as an influential force for mainstream styles of music (pop and rock in particular). Wu-Tang Clan is the definitive hip hop group that has elevated the genre to transcendent levels with their unique brand of musical innovation and creative raps that are both powerful and memorable. The group stands out from the wide range of hip hop artists in the way that their songs are crafted. They include traditional hip hop sounds, but also employ a variety of musical elements that set them apart; their raps are lyrical and poetic, featuring multiple layers of meaning while displaying the personal style of each member. In this sense, listening to Wu-Tang Clan is a harmonic experience because melody and language are in perfect balance and reflect the diverse personalities of the group. Wu-Tang Clan is notable for the way the members pull their influences together and utilize them within the musical format to create songs that are provocative, artistic, and holistic in their aim to project and encourage personal enlightenment. This essay will look at five signature songs of the group and examine the structural/musical/poetic qualities that establish Wu-Tang Clan as a dominant force within the hip hop genre. Through this analysis it will also be apparent how the members’ merging styles create an overarching collective style that makes Wu-Tang Clan a truly special and original hip hop group.

“Shame on a Nigga,” from the group’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) is upbeat and rhythmic, featuring house party style music and a sampled piano melody that works as a nice contrast to the steady, pulsing beats that occupy most of the musical space. In this song, there are four verses along with a chorus; however, vocally, the song belongs to Ol’ Dirty Bastard whose rapping style is aggressive and deeply primal. The song starts off with the chorus, sung by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and includes the most poignant line in the entire song: “Shame on a nigga who tried to run game on a nigga,” along with the resonant line: “I’ll fuck your ass up, ” followed by playful football language: “Hut one, hut two, hut three, hut.” Ol’ Dirty Bastard begins the first verse by introducing himself:

Ol’ Dirty Bastard, live and uncut
Styles unbreakable, shatterproof
To the young youth, you wanna get gun?
Shoot! Blaow! How you like me now?
Don’t fuck the style, ruthless wild
Do you wanna get your teeth knocked the fuck out?
Wanna get on it like that, well then shout

Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s distinct talent as a rapper is inherent in the way he utilizes the primal tones of his voice to create an incredible listening experience. His voice is smooth in the way it moves along with the rhythm of the song, but also rough as it ventures into moments of personal expression. Phrases like “live and uncut,” “Styles unbreakable, shatterproof,” and “ruthless wild” reflect the nature of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s vocal tones. Words like “Shoot” and “Blaow” utilize vocal sounds and add another layer of verbal play to the song. The crowning lyric of the rap: “Do you wanna get your teeth knocked the fuck out?” hits the core of the song and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s vocal sensibilities simultaneously.

The next two verses feature Method Man and Raekwon the Chef who serve as complimentary forces with raps that are playful and vocally complex. Method Man’s raps are mellow and full of word-play: “my Clan understand it be flavor / Gunnin’, comin’, comin’ atcha / First I’m gonna getcha, once I gotcha, I gat-cha.” Additionally, Raekwon the Chef includes his unique brand of lyric play within his raps: “Smoother than a Lexus, now’s my turn to wreck this,” “I bet you’re not a fucking vet,” and “Remember I got deep like a Navy Seal.” These raps set the stage for Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the fourth verse:

Yo, I come with that ol’ loco
Style from my vocal
Couldn’t peep it with a pair of bifocals
I’m no joker, play me as a joker
Be on it like a house on fire, smoke you
Crews be acting like they gangs anyway
Be like, “Warriors! Come out and play-yay!”
Burn me, I get into shit, I let it out like diarrhea
Got burnt once, but that was only gonorrhea
Dirty, I keep shit stinks in my drawers
So I can get fzza-funky for you
Murder, taste the flame of the Wu-Tang rahh
Here comes the Tiger verse Crane
Ow, be like wild with my style
Punk, you playing me, chump, you get dumped
Wu is coming through at a theatre near you
And get funk like a shoe
What

This rap includes poetic elements like rhyme: “loco / vocal / focal,” “anyway / play,” “diarrhea / gonorrhea,” metaphor: “Be on it like a house on fire” as well as word/syllabic enhancement: “play-yay,” “fzza-funky,” “Ow / wild / style,” “Punk / chump / dumped,” “Wu / through / you / shoe,” but what really makes this rap noteworthy is the personal style Ol’ Dirty Bastard employs, making this verse vibrantly lyrical. Words/phrases like “I’m no joker,” “smoke you,” “Murder / taste the flame of the Wu-Tang rahh” and “What” are examples of places where Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s personality harmonizes with the rap. His tone is unapologetically filthy, vulgar, uninhibited, and aggressive, but also playful in ways that heighten the vocal and lyrical rough edges of the song.

“Method Man,” from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is a groundbreaking hip hop song for the way it combines musical sounds and poetic elements in innovative ways. Method Man’s rapping style is rhythmic, lyrical, and playful, and emphasizes the distinctive tone of his voice which is low, rich, and slightly rough. The most striking element of the song is the use of the metronome. It is the first sound that is heard and it maintains its presence throughout the entire song. During the second intro, GZA sets the rhythmic stage by rapping “From the slums of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan strikes again, / the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, / Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, / Ghost Face Killah, and the Method Man.” The strength of this rap is apparent in how GZA locates and introduces the group, listing all nine members. It acknowledges the presence of each member, providing space for selfhood and agency. It also helps set the tone for the song as a whole, which presents the group as a collective energetic force who serves as a foundation for Method Man’s highly nuanced raps.

Aside from the metronome, the song features a simple piano melody and a pulsing drum beat that fills out the rest of the musical space. A key component of the song is the spelling of Method Man’s name. He begins by spelling the first part of his name and speaking the second part (M-e-t-h-o-d Man) in a repetitive rhythm that is wholly unique and hypnotic. Structurally, “Method Man” consists of two verses separated by a bridge that adds another layer of lyrical depth. Method Man is incredibly skilled at combining the nuances of his vocal and lyrical styles to create raps that are powerful and poetic. Here is the first part of the first verse:

Hey, you, get off my cloud
You don’t know me and you don’t know my style
Who be gettin’ flam when they come to a jam?
Here I am, here I am, the Method Man
Patty cake, patty cake, hey the Method Man
Don’t eat Skippy, Jif or Peter Pan
Peanut butter, cause I’m not butter
In fact I snap back like a rubber
Band, I be Sam, Sam I am
And I don’t eat green eggs and ham
Style will hit you, wham, then goddamn
You be like oh shit that’s the jam

The lines “Hey, you, get off my cloud / You don’t know me and you don’t know my style” are notable for the way Method Man successfully fuses the tone of his voice with the tone of the rap—both are confrontational and confident in the way they address an antagonistic other. This section of the verse features nursery rhymes, peanut butter brands, and a Dr. Seuss reference, adding cultural context and poetic depth, as well as memorable rhymes such as “Man / Pan,” “butter / rubber,” and “am / ham / goddamn / jam.” Additionally, Method Man manipulates the syllables in the line “In fact I snap back like a rubber / band” so that it looks something like this:

In fact / I snap back / like a / rubber / band

This syllabic play serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the steady flow of Method Man’s rapping style. Here is the second part of the first verse:

Turn it up now hear me get buckwu-wu-wild
I’m about to blow, light me up
Upside, downside, inside and outside
Hitting you from every angle, there’s no doubt
I am, the one and only Method Man
The master of the plan, wrapping shit like Saran
Wrap, with some of this and some of that
Hold up (what?) I tawt I taw I putty tat
Over there, but I think he best to beware
Of the diggy dog shit right here

The notable lines in this section occur where Method Man places extra vocal emphasis for dramatic effect. “I’m about to blow, light me up / Upside, downside, inside and outside / Hitting you from every angle, there’s no doubt / I am, the one and only Method Man” employ syllabic and rhythmic variations that add vocal tension to the song. “The master of the plan, wrapping shit like Saran / Wrap,” is playful and referential as well as “I tawt I taw a putty tat / Over there,” which references and mimics the Looney Tunes character Tweety, adding an element of poetic irony to the song. As the verse continues, Method Man raps “The poetry’s in motion, coast to coast and / Rub it on your skin like lotion / What’s the commotion, oh my lord / Another cord chopped by the Wu-Tang sword / Hey, hey, hey, like Fat Albert.” These lines emphasize a mashup of language play, utilizing a variety of vocal sounds that increase the power of the rap. The rhymes “motion / lotion / commotion” mix well with the proclamation “oh my lord / Another cord chopped by the Wu-Tang sword,” and culminate with the reference to Fat Albert as he mimics “Hey, hey, hey,” and exaggerates the word “Fat.”

The second verse of the song takes advantage of the same kind of poetic elements from the first verse with lines like “Blow like snow when the cold wind’s blow / Zoom, I hit the mic like boom” as Method Man places vocal emphasis on “boom.” Toward the end of the second verse he raps: “Chim chiminey, chim chim cher-ee / Freak a flow and flow fancy free” which is pure vocal play and alliteration, but it also reappropriates the Mary Poppins lyric in the first part so that it fits with the melody of the rap, reinventing the lyrical magic of the line. Right after that, Method Man caps off this part of the rap by including a reference to the Tootsie Pop commercial, rapping “Now how many licks does it take / For me to hit the Tootsie Roll center of a break.” This line is also reappropriated and in this context it encompasses sexual undertones, creatively transforming the reference. Additionally, when Method Man raps “mad deep Wu-Tang” toward the end of the verse, he adds a flourish to the group’s name by saying “Wu” in a high tone and “Tang” in his regular vocal tone, bringing even more personality to the song.

“Hollow Bones,” from the group’s third album The W (2000) utilizes pure hip hop aesthetics, sampling vintage rhythm and blues music and vocals, and including engaging raps that focus on language play, slang, and a loose narrative thread as a way to communicate oppressed black experience. The song begins with a single gunshot which holds immense weight and establishes the mood of the song musically and artistically. The sampled lyric: “That splash against my hollow bones / That rocks my soul” is repeated during key moments, serving as a contrasting high tone to the low rhythmic beats, creating an alluring accent to the song. Raekwon the Chef raps the first verse:

Ayo, ayo, ayo
High potency Thai, smoke a bag of black
And feel the vibe, born to be wise
We form on a rise, the corner mean five
Laws in disguise, throw on your slides
Young niggas racist, smokers is basing
We seen the eyes, laying up playing the cut
What, stay in the truck, something told me duck
Folding me up, my shoulders struck
Out of luck, fuck the Pradas up
Fell on a daze like a Golotta snuff
Niggas tried to body me up
I’m in the lobby bleeding
Niggas in the waiting office probably eating
And sprinting and beefing when they heard the shots
Called the precinct and seen barber nieces beast
Niggas shot Shallah features and shot through his Elisis
Bent the spinal cordless creatures
As I’m gagging and flagging a cab down
Guess who in the Benz wagon, dragging my sound down
Macking it was Dale Breedy the greedy
Conniving ass snake genie
Cop with a bikini who murdered Tosh and Benini
I’m feeling wheezy and the drain from the cheeba
Grieving ain’t even looking decent
Seeing police niggas reaching

Raekwon the Chef establishes the rhythm by singing “Ayo, ayo, ayo,” a simple, mellow rhythm that allows for serious word play. Phrases like “smoke a bag of black / And feel the vibe,” “Bent the spinal cordless creatures,” and “Conniving ass snake genie” contribute lyrically to the rhythmic tone of the song, but also point to a narrative: “stay in the truck, something told me duck / Folding me up, my shoulder’s struck,” “I’m in the lobby bleeding / Niggas in the waiting office probably eating / And sprinting and beefing when they heard the shots,” “I’m gagging and flagging a cab down.” The narrative is continued in the second verse by Inspectah Deck:

Fleeing the crime scene speeding
Beefing leaving behind cream
Not even peeping that I was leaking
Won’t see the precinct just got a recent case beaten
Still jakes are creeping
Don’t blow your spot, stay the weekend
Keep the Ruger peeling who’s squealing
Few knew the dealings
Keep the steel concealed in
Cause we got no time for feelings
Eyes on the building guards are on the corners illing
Million dollar block villain plotting on a killing
Feel like a superhero talking like a true De Niro
They bruised his ego, found him broke down
Reduced to zero, cops fill reports
Hoping I’ll reveal my source, source

Here, the phrases continue to take on lyrical qualities. “Keep the steel concealed in / Cause we got no time for feeling” is a poetic remark that reflects the true nature of the situation. In the midst of crime, violence, and police brutality, the suppression and the denial of human feeling is part of survival. The line, “Feel like a superhero talking like a true De Niro,” is referential and metaphorical. “Superhero” and “De Niro” are put on the same plane of existence as Robert De Niro also comes to represent the larger-than-life gangster/criminal persona. However, the “Million dollar block villain plotting on a killing” is found “broke down / reduced to zero,” unable to maintain his gangster mentality. Inspectah Deck ends the verse by rapping “cops fill reports / Hoping I’ll reveal my source, source” which brings the narrative back to the speaker who serves as a witness. The thread is continued by Ghostface Killah in the third verse:

Outside the check cashing, flashing
Dipped in fashion
Five cherry-faced faggots tried to cash in
They keep laughing, “Ghost you get your face bashed in
Who gave you these privileges son? Why you maxing?”
And we fiending to take those move slow
I’m hearing how you broke Rob’s nose
And I heard you keep a banging hammer
Golden brass diamonds embroideries
That was stolen that you haven’t reported G
Make very little noise, my shit hiccup
Don’t make this big stick up bigger
Me and the boys I thought for a second then chose
Rather than froze
Had the Gem Star in my hand
Yo what the fuck yo, that’s when I ripped Timothy
Snatch and dipped, jumped right in back of him
Had the mini axe tool, faxed him
Shots rang off, bing, boggle-de-dum

This last verse paints the scene of a robbery: “Outside the check cashing / flashing.” There are threats from the party being robbed: “They keep laughing, ‘Ghost you get your face bashed in / Who gave you these privileges son? / Why you maxing?’” In this part of the rap, Ghostface Killah reflects on the reputation of one of the individuals being robbed: “I’m hearing how you broke Rob’s nose / And I heard you keep a banging hammer / Golden brass diamonds embroideries / That was stolen that you haven’t reported G,” and wavers slightly: “my shit hiccup / Don’t make this big stick up bigger.” They proceed to rob the group anyway and the last line describes the results in poetic fashion: “Shots rang off, bing, boggle-de-dum.” This song in particular is worthy of recognition for its creative narrative storyline that shifts from rapper to rapper and how the major themes of criminality, violence, and oppression are expressed through rhythmic spoken word rapping. The language is complex and maintains its musical edge all the way through even as it utilizes three distinct voices.

“In the Hood,” from the group’s fourth album Iron Flag (2001) is notable for the way it utilizes a spoken word style of rapping and includes three different perspectives of what it means to live in the hood. The musical aspects of the song include high and low sound elements that create an ideal backdrop for the stark raps that occupy most of the sonic space. On the high end, there is a looped horn-line melody; on the low end there is a deep, simple, bass-heavy repeating beat. The brightness of the horns and the attractive groove of the beat enact both a strong presence and hypnotic energy that reflects the nature of the environment being described. Additionally, the sounds of sirens and gunshots act as accents against the brightness/heaviness of the music. As a result, these coexisting sounds become identifiable as musical representations of what it means to live in the hood. They become one with the raps themselves, creating a symbiotic relationship between sound and language.

This song also displays Wu-Tang Clan’s principal strength as a hip hop group: the way the poetic elements of the raps are driven by spoken word rhythms as well as a variety of slang terms and rhymes that give personality and tension to the song. The first verse is rapped by Masta Killa. Here it is in its entirety:

Y’all niggas better rock y’all hoodies
Take money, snatch jewelry in the hood
You find the best women looking good
Diamond she need polishing
In my hood, all the gunshot legal
At the same time we gotta stop killing our people
Keep it in the hood, niggas walk with they gun
Keep it in the hood, that’s where we come from
I rep Brooklyn, home of the gangster
I know a few murderer, drug dealer
In the hood, we speak mathematics and build
What’s the total weight of the brain, Allah real
Slang jacks and hold gats, in the hood, 80 proof
Get my dick sucked on the roof of the projects
Dice game in the park, blunt sessions after dark
Moving with the Wesson
Welcome to the God we build and drop a lesson
Pussyhole testing, in the hood
Got the word from the hoodrat, shorty on the wood

In this rap, the rhymes achieve a subversive quality that emphasizes personal empowerment under harsh living circumstances. For example, the rhymes “Hood / good,” “legal / people,” “build / real,” and “Wesson / lesson,” create new parallel meanings within the rap. These words in particular have a positive charge, and when paired together, stimulate subconscious enlightenment. Another successful aspect of this rap pertains to a variety of actions. “Take money, snatch jewelry,” “we speak mathematics and build,” are sharp and suggestive, while “get my dick sucked on the roof of the projects / Dice game in the park, blunt sessions after dark” are more descriptive. Additionally, the rap contains more sophisticated poetic elements such as paradox: “In the hood, all the gunshot legal / but at the same time we gotta stop killing our people.” Here, “all the gunshot legal” has a literal and metaphorical meaning as it stands in opposition to “we gotta stop killing our people.” In this sense the paradox pertains to life and death and how both events are independent of but also dependent on the precarious and chaotic nature of hood life. The rap also contains a subtle turn that stimulates philosophical thought: “What’s the total weight of the brain?” This line creates an interesting shift in the rap, highlighting a moment for deeper meditative thought.

Inspectah Deck raps the second verse which also features excellent rhymes and slang language that heightens the tone of the song. Here is it in its entirety:

Ayo, we boys in the hood, big bad wolves in the woods
It ain’t all good, pass the goods
Deep in the project halls waiting to shine
Walk with a nine and talk with gang signs
In the hood, niggas put twenties on Hoopties
Four heads, one forty ounce and a loosie
And keep dough on the flip, a ho on the strip
And roll dick throw on the flip
Weed clouds thick enough to block the sun
Cops come, but thugs never drop the gun, understood?
Far from your Hollywood
From day one, I vowed I would keep it in the hood
From project chicks with hips and slim waists
From five dollar plates, apartment six-eighths
O.G, I spit G to the young ones
I keep it in the hood that’s where I come from

Here, descriptive lines are woven throughout the rap, filled with metaphorical language. “Big bad wolves in the woods,” establishes an element of empowerment; “Deep in the project halls waiting to shine,” employs an interesting contrast of darkness, lightness, and transformation; “Weed clouds thick enough to block out the sun,” is a dense, but vibrant image that focuses on perspective/perception as way of seeing the world through the eyes of the speaker. The line “Cops come, but thugs never drop the gun, understood?” also includes metaphorical meaning as “gun” becomes representative of various states of being: pride, courage, selfhood, and confidence. The word “understood,” adds poignant weight to the line. “Far from your Hollywood” represents a mindset that resists romanticism and sensationalism, creating distance between the rapper’s environment, which is actual lived experience, and Hollywood, which is simulated and superficial. The line “I vowed I would keep it in the hood,” announces authenticity as a preferred mentality that understands what the hood represents: it is a place rife with conflict and suffering, but it also provides individuals with the ability to develop willpower, survival skills, and the wisdom to see through systemic hypocrisies.

Streetlife, although not an official member of the group, raps the third verse, which is noteworthy for the way it focuses on realism in order to describe the brutal environment of hood life. Here is the verse in its entirety:

This is the place where thugs is born (in the hood)
Blink too long your life is gone (in the hood)
Convicts still live with they mom
And they whole family tree is tattooed on they arm (in the hood)
Crack fiend’d furnish a ‘Llac (in the hood)
Africans be driving cabs (in the hood)
In the streets the ghetto is hot
And the illest gangsters on the block with cops (in the hood)
The ones you love will fill you with slugs (in the hood)
Babies born addicted to drugs (in the hood)
We make life or death decisions
And the school system is like a minimum prison
So you can’t knock the hustle or the life that I’m living
In the hood, it ain’t all good, repent or you sinning

This rap points to specific reasons why the hood is problematic. In the hood, “thugs is born,” “Convicts still live with they mom;” there are “Crack fiends” and “the illest gangsters on the block with cops.” These lines describe how the hood breeds, harbors, and encourages corrupt living, reinforces criminality, and feeds addictions. The hood is also a place where trust is scarce, where “The ones you love will fill you with slugs,” and “Babies [are] born addicted to drugs.” To go even further, “We make life and death decisions,” and “the school system is like a minimum prison,” explicitly states that hood life is dangerous and oppressive. The phrase “in the hood” is repeated several times for poignant effect. The last two lines of the rap: “So you can’t knock the hustle or the life that I’m living / In the hood, it ain’t all good, repent or you sinning,” are proclamations that resist judgment, redefine selfhood, and set up a clear relationship between reality and morality. The final line, “it ain’t all good, repent or you sinning,” is willfully dogmatic and meaningful: it is concise, serious, truthful—and powerfully blunt.

“Pioneer the Frontier,” from the group’s sixth album A Better Tomorrow (2014) marks an interesting aesthetic shift lyrically, musically, and thematically. Here, there are visible signs of the privileged comforts that go along with being veteran hip hop artists. The general tone of the music is in the lower range, accompanied by looped horn lines. The tempo is also slower, and the raps mirror these musical sensibilities. RZA raps the first verse, and it is worth noting how he takes his time, in spoken word fashion, inhabiting the energy of the song and relishing the fruits of the group’s overall success:

We don’t hunt deer
Vegetarian dishes from the concierge
Presidential suites, presidential treats
Brazilian models, oiling up my feet
10 days a month, my girl pays for lunch
3 days a week, we work out at Crunch
Time after time, line after line
Our stock increases, rhyme after rhyme
In the valley, of San Fernando
Found Q-Tip’s wallet in El Segundo
Probably been spotted on Telemundo
With more wild cards than a box of Uno
That spin like propeller, my dog like Old Yeller
Holler at the moon, my goons at Coachella

This rap is tightly compressed, and although it expresses the specific benefits of attaining privilege and success, RZA proclaims: “We don’t hunt deer” which is highly metaphorical, asserting that although the group sits at the top of the food chain, they are not predatory. RZA gives specific examples of what it feels like to be at the top: “Presidential suites, presidential treats / Brazilian models, oiling up my feet,” “my girl pays for lunch.” The word “presidential” is suggestive of high-end treatment; “Brazilian models” and a female companion that “pays for lunch” represent a more sophisticated class of women than the ones referred to in past songs. Additionally, RZA makes it clear that the group’s dominant position is not static, but rather, ongoing: “Time after time, line after line / Our stock increases, rhyme after rhyme,” suggesting a continued upward trajectory. This rap is also imagistic: “deer,” “feet,” “wallet,” “wild cards / Uno,” “propeller,” and “dog / Old Yeller” function as interesting visual accents. In the second verse, U-God elaborates on what it means to achieve full-blown success:

I got my hands in the pot, 500 grand in the yacht
I’m the dope man with plans to expand on every block
Wu-brand, legendary hands, hard as penitentiary rock
Now put that to your temple, the Wu symbol’s about to drop
Insert the beam on my Glock, got that lean in my bottle
What that mean? High self-esteem, straight cream on the top
Riding chops similar to UFC kickbox, kick rocks
Dirty trucker pit stops, shit, grams in a Ziploc
Watch how the pitbull lock his jaws, then lock your doors
Feds watch the boards, hip hop spills out my pores
I be raw, 4 plus 4 plus 7 more
The Clan rock the tours, we be them reservoir dogs

This verse is also image-heavy: “yacht,” “Wu’s symbol,” “Glock,” “Ziploc,” “pitbull,” “doors,” and includes references: “UFC” and “reservoir dogs,” as U-God sticks closely to the lifestyle he identifies with in his raps. “I’m the dope man with plans to expand on every block,” “hard as penitentiary rock,” “straight cream on the top” and “hip hop spills out my pores,” are lyrically engaging but also traditional in the way that they celebrate a hardened, but also hard-won gangster mentality, resulting in “High self-esteem.” Inspectah Deck continues to rap about success from his perspective in the third verse:

Guaranteed I bang hard
I plan to leave the game large, no brainwash
The devil himself could not persuade God, my blade’s sharp
Circle my square, I dare you Braveheart
Before I leave your head in your hands, what’s your name, huh?
My lines get in your cells like 7 Ls
Any problem, I address you like I’m sending you mail
Let me do well, they’d rather see me dead or in jail
But let it be my life story if they ever do tell
Know I died for what I live
An intimate connection for that infinite reflection
That’s my wife and my kids, there’s a price on my lid
So now my stock’s high and shots fired
My niggas who was tight with the kid
I’m hot as Hell’s Kitchen with the oven on
Deck bomb, Teflon, the rappers nothing to a don
If I’m fronting then respond
If not, throw up your arms, it’s the Killer Bees swarming
Your set, the fuck is y’all?

The tone in this verse contains a mixture of prideful swagger and humility. Right off the bat Inspectah Deck proclaims: “Guaranteed I bang hard” and continues by exclaiming: “Before I leave your head in your hands, what’s your name, huh?,” “I address you like I’m sending you mail,” “I’m hot as Hell’s Kitchen with the oven on,” and “the fuck is y’all?” Throughout the rap, the tone shifts toward vulnerability and the ego is lowered: “Let me do well, they’d rather see me dead or in jail,” “Know I died for what I live / An intimate connection for that infinite reflection,” “So now my stock’s high and shots fired.” These lines bring balance to the rap as they acknowledge that for an oppressed individual, success does not guarantee personal safety, and to a more significant extent, total personal liberation. “They’d rather see me dead or in jail” is an accurate assessment of the true nature of success achieved by someone who was born and raised in an oppressed environment: it is understood as something that is typically denied, withheld, or taken away; it is never regarded as a permanent state of being.

When listening to these songs, RZA’s talents as a producer become apparent. What sets him apart from other hip hop producers is the way he uses samples and beats: they complement the raps rather than overshadow them. In a Wu-Tang Clan song, the raps are always at the forefront. RZA has an ear for tone, rhythm, and detail, and he has a rare talent for using musical flourishes to enhance the mood of a song. He has shown, over the years, that less is more, and this has allowed him to accomplish more than any other producer within the contemporary hip hop landscape. As a result, Wu-Tang Clan, as a collective group, is upheld through the varying styles and poetic intricacies of their raps.  Because aesthetics, individual talent, and harmonic balance are emphasized, Wu-Tang Clan continue to serve as a central force for the hip hop genre. Through the group’s personal and artistic interests, life experiences, and spiritual commitments to achieving transcendence through the lyrical function of their raps, their music resonates on many levels consciously and subconsciously; it is celebratory, subversive, anarchic, and unifying—and above all, it enriches the hip hop genre and serves as a foundational influence for future aspiring hip hop artists.

December 16, 2019