There's no question that the Wu-Tang Empire just ain't what it used to be. What was once a mighty, indestructible hip-hop force is now just another group of gifted rappers struggling to maintain an identity in today's market. Sure, there are still the hardcore, cult-like Wu followers out there who religiously snatch up everything related to the Clan, but, sad as it may be, the new jacks are not showing Wu-Tang the love they once received and still richly deserve.
Of course, none of this is news to anybody. We all know what's gone on with the Wu in recent years. But the question is, does anyone know why they've slipped? What was it, exactly, that caused the Wu Dynasty to crumble? Some would argue that they wait too long between releasing albums (with the exception being the year between "The W" and "Iron Flag"). Others would say it's because they've put out too many mediocre solo releases over the years (U-God, I hope you're listening). And, granted, those are both good points. But what about the fact that the Original Nine are really now only the Original Eight? You know what I'm talking about. Things just haven't been the same since Ol' Dirty went fugitive style and got his ass locked up. Sure, RZA might try to act like nothing's changed; he may even try to cover it up, and use CappaDonna as a replacement (a mistake I hope he SERIOUSLY regrets), but the fact is, Dirty is one of a kind, and without him, Wu-Tang isn't complete. How's Voltron gonna form without all the parts, right?
So it is with this in mind that we go back to 1995, to a much older and dirtier time. Wu-Tang had already killed it in '93 with the original 36 Chambers, and Method Man, GZA, and Raekwon had enjoyed solo success as well. But then RZA went ahead and dropped something on the rap world that, to this day, is one of the strangest recordings to ever be put on wax. That something was the Ol' Dirty Bastard's first solo LP. Some people regard it as a classic, and some say it's just a garbled mess. And you know what? They're both right. See, "Return to the 36" is a bit of a paradox. It features some of the worst MC-ing of all time, and truly sloppy production, yet somehow manages to come out sounding nice. Just like the old Kung-Fu flicks that inspired the Wu-Tang, Ol' Dirty's album is so bad that it's good. In fact, it's real good.
If you've never heard Ol' Dirty Bastard rap before, I first have to ask what the hell you're doing at rapreviews.com. But after that, I'd tell you that there is really no way to describe this man. When Meth said that there ain't no father to Ol' Dirty's style, he wasn't fuckin wit ya. What ODB does when he's on the mic is something insane. There's no word for it. It's not rapping, and it sure as hell isn't singing, but at times, it could be compared to either of those. Then, a lot of the time it's barely even intelligible. To say the least, Dirty's style is awkward, and at first, off-putting to many. However, even though there's no denying Ol' Dirty is an awful lyricist, he delivers his shit with so much energy that it's impossible to ignore him. And once Ol' Dirty's got your attention, he won't let it go. He makes you listen, damn it, whether you like it or not. And he's got an ego, too. On "Drunk Game", Ol' Dirty proclaims himself to be "the baddest hip-hop man across the world." (?!?!?)"Return to the 36" gives you pure, uncut Ol' Dirty Bastard – grimy as hell, and just as funky. This is long before "Ghetto Superstar", don't forget.
And don't expect any Neptunes-produced-"Got Your Money"-featuring-Kelis-type-shit here either. Because besides their debut, Wu-Tang have never sounded as tough as this. To his credit, Dirty did produce three of the tracks himself. But with RZA handling almost all of the production duties (remember when he used to produce EVERYthing?), you can expect the beats to be slammin'. (Dirty even says it himself: "My beats are slammin' from the rugged programmin'!") And since RZA really knows how to personalize the beats for each clan member, the music on this album comes out sounding every BIT as Ol' and Dirty as the Bastard himself. In short, the beats fit the MC PERFECTLY! If there was, for some reason, any doubt in your mind that RZA is one of the best hip-hop producers of all time, listen to this record to get your head straight. This is some of RZA's best work. Shit like "Shimmy Shimmy Ya", "Hippa to da Hoppa", or "Snakes" is Wu-Tang at its absolute finest. He stumbles a bit on "Damage" and "Proteck Ya Neck II the Zoo", but never too bad. Strange though, that one of RZA's most cohesive packages is an album featuring one of the least cohesive human beings I have ever heard.
There are excellent guest appearances on several of the tracks, too. Method Man and Raekwon show up on "Raw Hide", and both blaze the track. Although it's not one of Rae's better verses, Method Man shows what an amazing MC he was way back before he started appearing on every single hip-hop LP ever released. GZA appears on "Damage", and even though it's probably the worst beat on the album, GZA is obviously borrowing some of Dirty's intensity to deliver what is easily the wildest, most energetic verse of his career. Ol' Dirty and RZA make an amazing team when they trade verses, and they prove it on "Cuttin' Heads". Ghostface, 60 Second Assassin, Buddah Monk, Killah Priest, and others appear as well. But, as is expected, not one of these cats comes CLOSE to stealing Ol' Dirty's spotlight.
"Return to the 36 Chambers" is like a musical mind warp. There is so much crazy audio experimentation happening here, and when you combine that with Ol' Dirty's trademark insanity, you literally feel like you've lost your mind by the time the album's finished. They may have tried to recreate this experience with the "Nigga Please" album, but "Return to the 36" is completely unlike anything else. It won't suit everyone's taste, that's for damn sure, but it's certainly unique, and a trip that should definitely be taken at least once.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Ol' & Dirty Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10
Originally posted: March 15, 2002