I’ve had a long-running debate with a friend at work about hip hop artists evolving versus those who stay in their lane. He’s the open-minded one, the one who believes rappers have the right to do whatever they want musically regardless of what their fans think, as opposed to me, the purist, who perhaps selfishly wants my favorite artists to keep giving me more of what made me like them in the first place. Why my work buddy and I hold those views is a write-up for another day, but needless to say this has been a prevalent discussion in hip hop over the years; a discussion that has lessened in relevance in more recent times as today’s hip hop tends to be very accepting towards the sounds of the genre moving in all sorts of directions, with the notion of “keeping it real” from a musical standpoint being close to redundant.
My own self-imagined restrictions for how far an artist should stray from what I expect are always rigid when it comes to anyone from the Wu-Tang Clan and their so-called “Wu-Fam” of offshoot artists. For better or worse I’ve kept in touch with a large percentage of Wu related releases over the years, including buying what are generally regarded as some of the collective’s weaker products, but ideally I’ve always really just wanted more of that “36 Chambers” theme and sound; as most of us know we don’t get much of that from the crew these days. As the Abbott of the Clan and also my favorite Wu member RZA is particularly susceptible to my close scrutiny, so when I stumbled upon an album cover with a picture of him and an (at the time) unknown to me white dude, both looking smooth and dapper in matching suits, I was immediately struck by a curious apprehension regarding what sort of music was behind that cover as it certainly didn’t suggest tales of iron fists and tiger styles.
So it turns out that the unknown white dude is Paul Banks, lead vocalist and guitarist from an American rock group called Interpol, and together with RZA they put out a mostly co-produced album called “Anything But Words”, with RZA as the “Steelz” (AKA Bobby Steels AKA Bobby Digital AKA et. al) half of the duo. Maybe I’m out of touch with what’s cool these days in most other genres but I’d never heard of Interpol nor Paul Banks, which actually wasn’t a bad thing as it allowed me to approach the album with a more open mind than if RZA teamed up with someone more familiar to me to whom I might not have been a fan of.
What you’re actually getting on this album via Banks and RZA isn’t really conventional rap/rock in the sense of Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way”, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock or whoever else comes to mind when you think of rapping over guitars and drums. The closest thing on this album to my personal expectations for this type of inter-genre collab is “Speedway Sonora” which has a catchy melody sitting behind RZA’s rapping, and a guitar fueled, Banks sung chorus that really sounds a LOT like what Blink-182 have been doing on their last couple of albums, particularly so with the guitar riffs. I really like this track as it reminds me somewhat of the Deltron 3030 projects, and it also appeals to my pop-punk fan alter ego, although I have little doubt many a one-eyed hip hop head will be less impressed than me once the lightweight punky chorus kicks in. Otherwise there’s not much of a balls out, hard rocking influence from the Banks side of the equation on this album; instead we get sounds that lie somewhere in the realms of 80’s post-punk meets a funk deficient trip-hop vibe, with touches of pop. It’s a recipe which I suppose is a bit closer to what we might regard as typical hip hop than what Jay-Z was doing with Linkin Park or Cypress Hill had going on with their metal tinged leanings.
The keyword in that last paragraph is “chorus” because more often than not the formula for this album is RZA’s verses with Banks on chorus duties, which isn’t really a surprise given we have an MC and singer duo, but it also presents the biggest problem with the album as the two artists just don’t seem to blend that well with each other stylistically. “Conceal” is an example of this, where we have a slow and rather dreary track, dare I say reminiscent of the late David Bowie’s latter work, but it might as well be a Banks solo track if not for the 30 second long RZA verse in the middle of the song that seems pasted in as an afterthought.
By far the greatest incompatibility between the two artists comes in the form of one of the singles from the album called “Giant”. If we had a modern day mumble rapper or someone more chart friendly on here than RZA this song would likely be a pop hit, it’s incredibly catchy and anthemic, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the very radio friendly chorus stuck in my head for days after the first listen. However, this song doesn’t have Lil Yachty or Lupe Fiasco on it, it has RZA, a very intense and aggressive RZA at that, which is great in the sense of hearing him deliver hyper rhymes with a force that I’ve not heard from the man for years, but his rugged rapping is a total mismatch to the made for the masses sing-along chorus from his guitar wielding buddy. Aside from rapping about the New World Order RZA also mentions that he’s bringing hip hop back to New York, and I wish he would (or better yet bring the old Wu-Tang sound back), but I don’t think a song with a Coldplay-like chorus is the right vehicle to achieve that.
As energetic as “Giant” is, most of the album sits in a state of slow to mid-tempo lethargy, thanks mostly to the dull instrumental soundscapes, but also due to Banks having a longer presence vocally than RZA on most of the songs. A big exception to that, and not surprisingly my favourite song on the album, is “Sword In The Stone”. This one has a very minimal amount of Banks singing behind the mellow start of the track, but then as the heavy beat kicks in RZA explodes and tears the track to shreds with his vocals. It may not be actuality but it seems RZA’s rhymes switch from written to freestyled as the track progresses, which is a nice touch if so. The track is rough and grimy, and this is one song where Banks sets the guitar into grunge mode and rips it in a way that parallels RZA’s intensity. There’s a feel of powerful live drumming mixed in with programmed drums that adds impact also. An added feature of the track is a verse by none other than Kool Keith, but maybe it’s more a disappointment than a plus as I have to admit that Keith’s off-beat rapping on the song is in total discord to RZA’s flow and it really does sound like it was added in at the last minute.
As mentioned though, the majority of the material here isn’t going to get you jumping around the room or even initiate much of a head nod. Whilst “Wild Season” does have one of the few funky beats on the album and RZA’s flow sounds incredibly buttery to my ears, the non-RZA parts of the song drag on for a painful eternity, especially when Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine takes over the latter half of the song it will have you wondering if RZA’s verse was actually just you remembering some other song of his you were listening to the day before. “Anything But Words” is another moody one, where RZA actually sits nicely within the tempo given to him, but another “Giant” type dramatic crescendo of a chorus from Banks leaves it feeling like a totally different song and pretty much ruins it for me.
Your patience will be especially tested during the closing trio of songs that could have been better had they been a couple minutes shorter and/or delivered with more zest musically. “One By One” has our Wu shifu spitting some lively lyrics about going to war and about the Wu in general, but again his rapping conflicts with the very sleepy feel of the track, and Banks sounding like an older Bowie or Peter Gabriel (or someone like that) doesn’t help as it sends me into an unwanted daydream state. Echo the prior sentence for “Gonna Make It” as once again our MC drops strong rhymes but the rest of the track is a five minute-plus long ambient, space-age sounding cure for insomnia. By the time we get to the next and final track “Point Of View” it’s hard not to be glad the album is finishing. It’s a funkier track, with some decent guitar work going on, and touches of trademark Wu off-kilter piano key tinkling in the production, but at over six minutes long with some mid-song change-ups it’s trying hard to be an epic track, but fails due to too much instrumental filler; incredibly brief guest verses by Method Man and Masta Killa bring little redemption as well.
Above all, I’m torn about RZA here. As already mentioned there are some songs where he is in classic form delivery-wise, and lyrically he also drops some of the next level gems that we love him for. Also, it’s refreshing that I can clearly hear his production nuances like the crisp drums and the distinctive hi-hats behind songs like “Anything But Words” and “Can’t Hardly Feel”. However, he also left me shaking my head in disappointment at times whilst listening to some surprisingly elementary rhymes. On “Ana Electronic” not only will you hear the best forgotten influence of the 80’s in the form of cheesy sounding keyboard work and overall irritating instrumentation but you will hear RZA deliver relationship themed verses including dropping a dud on ’em like “Love is a house and you got the keys, I’m like a city mouse, mama you got the cheese” and other simplistic lyrics that I could have actually written myself … when I was 12 years old. A bit better lyrically as it contains a decent narrative, but still not what I want from the man, is RZA doing his best impersonation of L.L.’s “I Need Love” semi-whispered, smooth loverman vocals on “Can’t Hardly Feel”. “Love and War” has an appearance by Ghostface Killah and perhaps not coincidentally it feels somewhat like his work with Adrian Younge due to the instrumentation; but it’s another one where we’re hearing relationship tales, which once again are executed with less lyrical depth than we’re accustomed to from the Wu camp. Songs like these really reinforce to me that since he created the Bobby Digital persona I’ve generally been very bored by RZA’s rhymes about love and women; yes it is a subject probably more befitting of a man his age compared to dressing up like a monk and rapping about kung-fu movies, but it’s as if he dumbs down his verbals when dealing with tales of the opposite gender – it bugs me as I know he is capable of so much better than that.
I can’t see it happening in this day and age but I think a much harder variety of rock or perhaps something like nu-metal would be a far better match for RZA’s vocal delivery were he to try something like this again. However, I do like the album more than my negativity in this review suggests. Despite many songs blending about as well as oil and water do, it’s still actually quite an interesting collaboration with at least a couple killer tracks and I’d much rather RZA do an album with someone like Paul Banks than doing something more typical and almost expected like hooking up with an R&B artist. That said, I’ve not had the inclination to listen to an Interpol song before or during this review and likely never will, but Banks’ presence does become somewhat satisfying after numerous album rotations; to the point he actually becomes enjoyable enough to listen to whilst waiting for each RZA verse.
So what does my open-minded work buddy think of this album? He said “This doesn’t sound like Wu-Tang at all, it sucks!”