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.)
Now trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, with help from his brothers Branford and Jason (and other fine musicians), presents a tribute of similar merit. While Ellington and co-composer Billy Strayhorn capture the essence of Shakespeare's characters in short, crisp compositions, Marsalis elaborates on their work, preserving the moods and characterization while extending each tune into a longer piece of music (sometimes by several minutes).
Marsalis' broad vision seeks to explore the many musical possibilities suggested by Ellington's compositions. Ellington's "Sonnet in Search of a Moor" (i.e., Othello) gets transformed by Marsalis into the six-minutes-longer "Sonnet in Search of Moor," with the play on words perhaps being the perfect description of the album. Marsalis' version is recorded at a faster tempo than the original. It features the melody that's played by the bass in the middle of the original; here, though, the melody is inserted at the beginning of the song, beautifully played on the saxophone.
Some tunes seem to work better on the original. The meditative mood of Ellington's piano on "Sonnet for Caesar" could never be improved upon. At the same time, Marsalis' "Lady Mac" now has a more gospel-tinged sound; I prefer it to the original. His "Sonnet to Hank Cinq" (i.e., Henry V, also known as Prince Hal) benefits from a swinging in-character extension of music lasting three minutes longer than the original.
When it comes to a project such as this, it's not possible to recommend the new one over the old one, but it's my pleasure to recommend them both in equal measure. Marsalis has had the audacity to stand on the shoulders of a giant, and stands nearly as tall.
Late Nights & Early Mornings by Marsha Ambrosius
Marsha Ambrosius, formerly of the widely beloved duo Floetry, has released a solo album of solid, often beautiful music. Floetry's career stalled a few years ago, and since then, the British-born Ambrosius has endeavored to develop a solo career. It appears that she has succeeded.
The album presents a wide range of emotions but leans toward the bitter and depressed. It contains at least three potential classics: the romantic candles-and-bath oils-and-whatnot slow jam title track "Late Nights & Early Mornings," the plaintive "Far Away" and the inspired "The Break Up Song." The last one has the potential to become "the" breakup song that women listen to when breaking up.
My problem with contemporary R&B is that it's generally allowed to be about only one subject: relationships. Late Nights is no different. If you like that, then this album is for you. One thing Ambrosius does do well is consider many possible relationship angles.
I must question the obvious radio pandering of the first single, "Hope She Cheats on You (With a Basketball Player)." I find the song shallow and vaguely offensive. It's beneath her as an artist. I mean, all right, it's hard to get noticed out here, so a song like that will and has gotten some attention. But in the grand scheme of things, being cheated on with a basketball player is preferable to being cheated on with, say, your own brother, some guy who works at the deli or a member of al-Qaida. As the comedians say, am I right? Am I right?
The biggest surprise on this album is a fabulous reworking (billed as a "remix") of "Butterflies," the song she wrote for Michael Jackson (Ambrosius provided backup vocals on the original). Ambrosius' version is catchy, up-tempo and worthy of the original recording.
Paul Devlin is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
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Correction: The authorship of "Butterflies" was erroneously attributed to Michael Jackson in the original version. This was corrected after a reader pointed out the error.