Around the time following Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams, a disgruntled faction of the Wu was rumored to be releasing an album titled Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. That project never came to fruition. However, Raekwon – who originally came up with the title Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang – opted to use the name for himself for his fifth studio album…and here we are.
The origin of the name comes from the martial arts film of the same title. This very film inspired the Wu to come up with their group name, and soundbytes from the film are dispersed all throughout Wu-Tang’s debut album, 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). A title of that magnitude would suggest that Raekwon would be bringing his formula back to Day One. That statement is partially true.
Raekwon could arguably be considered one of the most consistent members of Wu-Tang, next to Ghostface Killah. Throughout the tenure of his career, Rae has dabbled with various means of making his art more commercially viable, yet still remaining true to his craft. While mainstream acceptance was something Raekwon never really experienced until now (with the Justin Bieber/Kanye West “Runaway Love” remix situation), his method worked. It worked so well that his previous effort OB4CL2, the follow-up to the classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, topped the charts its first week of release, competing with Jay-Z’s legacy Blueprint III. While Cuban Linx 2 was flooded with extra concerned effort to be equally as good as its predecessor, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang throws caution to the wind. The collaborations aren’t calculated (though some might appear to be), and the project is about one RZA short of achieving almost a whole Wu-Tang appearance.
Production-wise, Raekwon enlisted a variety of producers (Erick Sermon, Scram Jones, Alchemist, Evidence, etc.), who all ironically manage to capture the Wu-Tang sound that RZA perfected, without having RZA actually present. Of course Wu-Tang beat stalwarts Allah Mathematics and Bronze Nazareth check in for the harps-infused “Dart School” and the extremely “Wu” “Butter Knives”, respectively. There are a number of dream collaborations, some more “dreamier” than others. The veterans on this project all bring their A-game, perhaps with the understanding that Raekwon is in fact consistent and in order to compete on the track, they have to dust off their rhyme books. Busta Rhymes is Leaders of the New School lyrical on “Crane Style”, while Nas is Nasty Nas on “Rich and Black” (prod. Sean C & LV). Even Black Thought – who for the most part has always managed to remain on top of his game – goes the extra mile for “Masters of Our Fate”. Raekwon has his pocket of mainstream rappers as well, with Jim Jones joining Ghost and Rae on the DJ Khalil-produced “Rock N Roll”, Lloyd Banks on the Scram Jones-produced “Last Trip to Scotland” and Rick Ross on the already famous “Molasses” (with Ghostface). However, one of the strongest tracks on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang lacks the fancy features, as Inspectah Deck blasts through “Chop Chop Ninja” with the hook-handling given to UK siren, Estelle.
While Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang at face value might not be the most agreeable title for Raekwon’s album, a closer look would prove it’s actually perfect. The work competes against itself – taking the old school lessons learned from the first encounter with Shaolin and teaming them with the new school version of Wu-Tang (the fame, the films, the Justin Bieber collaborations). In all, it works, but in a way that only the Chef could pull off.