If you don’t follow the Wu-Tang, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang would just seem the slightly delayed follow-up to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II. However, it’s a bit more than that: back when 8 Diagrams (the last album featuring the full collective) dropped in ’07, RZA’s forward-thinking production threw off a bunch of fans and some members themselves. Rae and Ghostface in particular were vocally displeased, declaring it a RZA solo album, and that the collective would reform some time in the future to release an album, without RZA’s contributions: Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang.
Well, a bunch has changed since then. RZA’s work on Diagrams was always clever, unfairly attacked, and in a world of Wacka Flack Flame’s, no longer seems all that poppy even to its former detractors. Anger at the Rizza subsided, Rae dropped Pt. II with some input from him, which turned out to be just the comeback he’d hoped for. Nonetheless, with Rae claiming the lingering concept for himself, RZA’s lack of involvement is symbolic. Under Rae’s sole direction, the “concept” of the album grew to circle around Rae’s street life prior to the Wu-Tang, “in” Shaolin, hence the “vs”. Yeah, it’s ambiguous, and as with most rap album concepts, hardly shows itself.
If anything, despite RZA’s absence, this is the most a Wu record has reclaimed their original sound since perhaps the first slew of Wu solo offerings. For any hip hop head, that’s an exciting prospect, making this a small album with a grand presence. The purported Eminem feature isn’t to be found, and the promised Nas verse is recycled, and some cuts seem to just end, but this record still manages to shine.
Frankly, Rae was probably not going to be able to top Pt. II. Following it up with what he does best at its most simple was about the cleverest move he could have made. There may be nothing new here, but Rae knows how to navigate this territory better than just about anyone this side of Mobb Deep (and they make the bonus tracks). Hell, you could’ve thrown Rae on the simplest True-Master beats, and he would’ve torn it up.
That’s not to say the production is lacking: “Snake Pond” is just about the coolest Wu beat put out since Liquid Swords, “Molasses” is as smooth as the title would lead you to believe, “From the Hills” makes for a surprisingly joyous song from The Chef, and so on. The guests aren’t slacking either, there’s the ever-present chemistry of Rae and Ghost, the ever-reliable Busta Rhymes lights up “Crane Style”, and Lloyd Banks steals “Last Trip to Scotland”, still apparently overjoyed to be in the Wu’s good graces. Even Rick Ross pulls off a decent verse, and – hey – Method Man is good again… bring on The Crystal Meth. Album closer (outro aside) “Masters of our Fate” sounds fit to be the first rap track to make a Star Trek movie, as Black Thought helps Rae along for a reflective last thought. It’s easy to forget: the Wu’s coming up on two decades. Raekwon knows what he does best, and while this may not be as grand as his last, he does just that here, to the fullest.