Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues (4 stars)

Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues

The hip hop supergroup's seventh studio album sees them return to their lyrically conscious yet militant roots

With the release of their genre-defining 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan unequivocally announced their arrival as the one the greatest hip hop groups of all-time, bringing to the forefront a kind of rap that was cerebral in its delivery and intuitive in style. In contrast to the gritty gangsta rap of the West Coast, Wu-Tang's focus was on lyrical consciousness combined with militant action, with metaphorical allusions to kung fu battles standing in for real-life issues relating to resistance and empowerment.

It's been 14 years since the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and in that time, there have been five more studio albums, various solo albums and special compilations, not to mention the death of a key member of the group, a range of legal issues and many falling outs along the way. But, 14 years later, Wu-Tang are somehow still going strong, returning with their seventh album The Saga Continues, which sees RZA take his rightful place as executive producer and Mathematics handling production.

Past critiques of Wu-Tang releases have made reference to their attempts to continually push their sound in new directions, which occasionally takes away from that original energy and raw aesthetic. But The Saga Continues is strangely refreshing in its familiarity; it flows, on the most part, like a classic Wu-Tang album, with expected scatterings of obscure movie dialogue samples, tongue-in-cheek observations and frank analysis running throughout. In the short intro track, opening fanfares make their intention clear: to keep the Wu-Tang story going while reclaiming their rightful place on the throne of hip hop.

'Lessons Learn'd' continues with a formidable duet courtesy of Inspectah Deck and Redman, with Redman's hook 'Them Wu-Tang n****s don't play' acting as a reminder of their mastery and don't-fuck-with-us attitude. This is perhaps most evident in the song's diss of super-villain Martin Shkreli ('My price hikin' like the pills Martin Shkreli sell'), who bought the (probably fake) lone copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for $2 million.

Elsewhere, there are tracks where the storytelling draws attention to the cinematic quality of the poetry, for example on 'If What You Say Is True', where the lyrics run like action film sequences, set against a backdrop of menacing horns. 'Pearl Harbor' is similar in its landscape, with each rapper's distinctive style laid out in quick succession for our appreciation, linked by a common denominator of defiance.

Mathematics' production is excellent overall, retaining that key Wu-Tang sound while still bringing something unique to the table. This really shines on tracks like the soulful lead single 'People Say' which samples The Diplomats' 'I've Got the Kind of Love' and stunning 'Why Why Why', with its mesh of reggae vibes, gentle vocals and RZA's fierce civil rights commentary. 'Frozen' is another major highlight, featuring the lyrical dexterity of Method Man, Killa Priest and Chris Rivers, as well as the added extra of a fiery and memorable hook.

Wu-Tang Clan have long been known for their love of and connection to the martial arts, with various references and samples popping up in tracks over the years thanks in part to the collective's mastermind and de facto chief RZA and his encyclopaedic knowledge of kung fu films. In his 2004 Wu-Tang Manual, he notably comments: 'The ultimate goal of kung fu, the highest level of t'ai chi as an effective martial art, is as an energy rejuvenator. It rejuvenates your blood, your spirit, it's even supposed to rejuvenate your youth. When we applied the spirit of kung fu to our lyrics, we came with the Wu-Tang.' In other words, Wu-Tang's lyricism mimics the type of artistry that emanates from the martial arts; the action, intensity and perhaps most importantly, the spirituality. The Saga Continues is not revolutionary but it doesn't feel like that was ever the intention. It's a recapitulation of the group's development and achievements over the years but also an invitation to once again enjoy each member's individual craft and their combined augmented sonic palette. Much has happened over the past 14 years but with The Saga Continues, Wu-Tang Clan are back where they belong.

Out Fri 13 Oct via 36 Chambers / Entertainment One.

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