The Root Roundup: Raekwon, Delfeayo Marsalis and Marsha Ambrosius

Two solo comebacks from members of Wu Tang and Floetry, and a remake of an Ellington classic -- all worth a listen.

Delfeayo Marsalis, Raekwon and Marsha Ambrosius (Getty Images)
Delfeayo Marsalis, Raekwon and Marsha Ambrosius (Getty Images)

Shaolin vs. Wu Tang by Raekwon

“Now we are the masters of our fate,” says the voice of Winston Churchill on Raekwon the Chef’s new album. “Ain’t no recycle bin for rappers,” says Busta Rhymes on a different track. Taken together, these statements say much about Raekwon’s career: He persevered through several difficult years, including a 2003 album that flopped and left many wondering about his future. “I rhyme for under-the-stairs n—ers who hate phonies,” he says on “Dart School,” and perhaps this is the secret to his longevity: nurturing a small but loyal base of faithful fans who have helped him re-emerge to once again address a wider audience.

The Wu Tang Clan member’s new album has a hunger, urgency and emotional investment not seen since his solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995), knocked the hip-hop world off its axis. After two albums and guest appearances that left many listeners cold, his real upswing began with the highly regarded Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part II (2009), and this new album tops that.

Since early 2010, Rae has stepped up further, delivering snappy verses on an album that he shared with Method Man and Ghostface Killah — Wu Massacre — as well as on Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As Rae says on Ghost’s latest album Apollo Kids, “I’m on my writing game.”

Shaolin vs. Wu Tang is an invigorated album that has the fierce energy of the kung fu film to which it so brilliantly pays homage. As a solo artist, Rae post-’95 has been historically underserved by beats that often ranged from dull to atrocious. All of the beats on Shaolin vs. Wu Tang are hot (some shockingly so), and he rises to the challenge, matching the rhythms with intricate flows and never-sharper lyrics on songs like “Silver Rings,” which is the album’s contribution to the long history of classic Rae-Ghost collaborations.

Other memorable offerings include “Crane Style” (featuring Busta Rhymes); “Molasses” (featuring Ghostface Killah and Rick Ross); “Snake Pond”; “From the Hills” (featuring Method Man and Raheem DeVaughn); “Rich and Black” (featuring Nas); and the intriguing “Butter Knives,” which may be the first time a Wu member has replied to the words of a kung fu film sample.

Kung fu film sample: “They say … he’s a swordsman!” Rae: “Who gives a f— if he’s a swordsman, I’m a gunman.” As a Wu Tang fanatic, I can’t think of another example where a Wu member replies to or has dialogue with a film voice sample — the voice samples are there on the track but never engaged with verbally.

The album features contributions from several fellow Wu members and a diverse, somewhat unexpected group of stars, including Black Thought, Havoc and Lloyd Banks — all there to complement Rae in interesting ways, not prop him up or fish for sales. Rae has stayed true to his vision and finally seems to have found his groove. Few people in 2003 would have thought that Raekwon would make such an exciting album in 2011.

Sweet Thunder: Duke & Shak by Delfeayo Marsalis

There are many uncanny analogies that can be drawn between the lives of Duke Ellington and William Shakespeare, so it is only fitting that Ellington co-wrote and his orchestra recorded a suite inspired by some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. Such Sweet Thunder was released in 1957; it is as fine a tribute from one artist to another as has ever been made. It can be appreciated as music without knowing about any of Shakespeare’s characters — but why would anyone not want to know about Shakespeare? (I wonder how Duke’s friend Orson Welles, another Shakespeare homage payer, felt about it.)