While not as gritty as its predecessor, it is much more cinematic and its title has become a mantra to a new generation
I wrote a 3,300 word piece back in 2017 celebrating the 20th anniversary of Wu-Tang Forever, so this will be much shorter, but I couldn’t let the silver anniversary of my favorite album pass in silence.
It’s easy to forget now, considering how long ago it was and how much things have changed (both for the group and the industry), but the release of Wu-Tang Forever was an event.
The album was anticipated for nearly a year. While there had been five solo releases under the Wu banner, this was the first time the entire Clan would be reunited for a full project.
When the double album finally arrived, it was everywhere. There were Times Square billboards, MTV specials, and iconic magazine covers, all led by a single that lasted nearly six minutes, included nine rap verses and zero hooks, and garnered significant radio play.
In my little corner of the world, excitement was sky-high. A large number of my classmates skipped school on June 3, 1997, to go buy it the day it was released. They were not alone. Wu-Tang Forever sold 612,000 copies in its first week and would go on to be certified four-times platinum.
While it seems everyone prefers the group’s debut, Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers], I prefer their sophomore project more. As I wrote in 2017:
“Perhaps to most fans it does not hold the significance of Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers], but to me Wu-Tang Forever is better. It is far deeper, more layered, more complex, and more polished. 36 Chambers was the raw introduction, but Forever is the apotheosis. Apart from the last couple of tracks on the second disc, it is virtually flawless. Like comfort food for my ears and my soul, it is the album that I turn to in those moments when music can carry me away.”
It is sprawling yet sensational. While not as gritty, it is much more cinematic, with a more conscious approach to rhymes mixed with a sneering condescension towards the Shiny Suit Era that was beginning to take over hip-hop.
There are times when misconceptions become treated as facts and the idea that the Clan plummeted from the mountaintop immediately following Wu-Tang Forever is certainly one of them.
The album is often cited as the end of the Clan’s reign, with RZA releasing his grip on all things Wu and beginning to experiment with different sounds while the group began to drift apart, but the truth is much more nuanced. All but two members released a solo album over the next two years and while their quality can be debated, most were successful and virtually all included at least a few bangers. Then, in 2000, Ghostface Killah dropped his classic sophomore disc, Supreme Clientele, before the group once again reconnected for The W, a stripped-down return to early form that was both met with critical acclaim and certified platinum. Even as late as 2009, Raekwon released a sequel to his genre-defining debut that defied the odds and expectations to be named the best hip-hop LP of the year, becoming another classic just like its predecessor.
Even as the new millennium was completing its first decade and the sound and the business of music rapidly changed, Wu-Tang was still a force. It’s not as if they did nothing for two decades until they began performing their classics on tour.
The truth is that RZA and his swordsmen were victims of their own success and mythmaking, having set a standard that no one (or nine or ten) person could ever hope to match. Many point to Wu-Tang Forever as the first effort that showed the cracks in the Clan’s armor, but Method Man’s and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s solo efforts were certainly not flawless, and future years would see the group continue to release music, some of it undeniably great.
The weirdest outcome is that the album Wu-Tang Forever has become overshadowed by the phrase “Wu-Tang is forever.”
It has turned into a sort of rallying cry and mantra. Both Drake and Logic have songs titled “Wu-Tang Forever.” The phrase is emblazoned on shirts, walls, even political lawn signs and, amazingly, was used by the World Health Organization to assure the world that quarantine would eventually end.
Musically it may not have the lasting impact of 36 Chambers, but Wu-Tang Forever is a classic with some all-time great tracks that cemented the Wu-Tang Clan as an organic supergroup.
They’d never again reach the heights of 1997, but while rap dominance may be temporary, cultural impact is forever.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.