To “A Better Tomorrow” and in Celebration of 21 Years: The 21 Greatest Wu-Tang Clan Albums

Wu-Tang Clan

Words by Paul Meara (@PaulMeara)

No group in the history of hip-hop music has released more classic albums than Wu-Tang Clan. And while it may be unfair to compare them to any other collective of emcees (they had 9+) there is no doubt their influence on hip-hop music was mad heavy. Their classic LPs spawned classic LPs.

After over two decades of releasing material and teaching the children that they ain’t nothing to fuck with, Wu-Tang and its aura is unquestionably unique. But that wouldn’t come without risk. During the time of the group’s inception RZA took a lot of chances and even some close to the camp would often question just what he was trying to do. The complex waters of each of RZA’s 36 Chambers were hard to grasp until you heard the music. The embattled chess match that each album presented (especially early) only added to the group’s intrigue and ability to stand out. From “Protect Ya Neck” to the Clan’s newest singles, Wu-Tang’s brand has grown thoughout the 90s, spilling into the 2000s and even lasting to the present day.

In honor of the 21 years since Wu-Tang Clan donned their debut album (and the release of their seventh group studio album, A Better Tomorrow) Nah Right has compiled as many albums, ranking them from 1-21. Only albums created by members of Wu or affiliates were included (sorry Wu Block and Blackout). Enjoy and always remember to “Protect Ya Gawdamn Neck!” as GZA would say.

36 Chambers

1. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

Artist(s): Wu-Tang Clan

Essential Songs: “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Protect Ya Neck,” “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit,” “Method Man”

36 Chambers was the beginning. The organic nature of the RZA’s vision, remarkable cohesion of numerous emcees with distinctive voices and the unique bond of nine Staten Island street poets from different neighborhoods made the Wu a truly unique entity. The obscure combative samples from 1978’s Kung Fu-based flick, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin still retains its intrigue as the album incorporates it into so many classic tracks. From the more reflective cuts like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Can It Be All So Simple” to confrontational and loud joints like “Method Man” and “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit,” Wu-Tang’s debut album had everything. No one, except maybe The Abbot, knew its potential. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) isn’t just a Wu classic or even a hip-hop classic. It’s a classic in the confines of all music and opened the doors for all the many styles that would follow.

Cuban Linx

2. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995)

Artist(s): Raekwon

Essential Songs: “Ice Cream,” “Criminology,” “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Rainy Dayz”

Of all the great Wu solo albums, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… takes the cake as the greatest. The debate of which solo effort takes the top spot largely comes down to taste. Those more partial to the traditional teachings of the Shaolin swordsman will cite Liquid Swords as Wu-Tang’s greatest solo LP. And those who like bagging coke and enjoy being taken to the more street side of things probably choose Cuban Linx as their go to. We place Raekwon’s debut album as the top dolo drop because it was precedent setting. Before OB4CL the Mafioso rap genre was thin. Rae wasn’t its founder but we’re damned if he didn’t play a large part in putting it on the map. From beginning to end Raekwon and his partner in crime, the honorable Tony Starks a.k.a. Ghostface Killah take you through a journey of back alley crack exchanges, spot rushing and other tales of New York City street life while simultaneously playing out a mafia movie. The album would also serve as a precursor to Ghost’s brilliant catalog, which would release its first effort only a year later.

Liquid Swords

3. Liquid Swords (1995)

Artist(s): GZA

Essential Songs: “Cold World,” “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth),” “Duel of the Iron Mic,” “Liquid Swords,” “Shadowboxin”

So yeah, like we mentioned in the last album description, it’s between Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… for Wu-Tang’s solo album crown. Each album is a hip-hop classic to say the least. Liquid Swords (outside of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)) is the best at presenting the deeply rooted Shaolin principles of the Clan. And it does that flawlessly. From the album’s first and title track to “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth),” GZA’s second album (remember, Words from the Genius was the first. Yeah, I know right?) places you front and center of an eternal chess match. It’s a deluge of metaphorical brilliance mixed with the everyday flaws of life Genius came up under. Liquid Swords following up OB4CL only added even more fuel to already raging fire burning under the Wu empire.

Ironman

4. Ironman (1996)

Artist(s): Ghostface Killah

Essential Songs: “All That I Got Is You,” “Assassination Day,” “Winter Warz”

Ironman kicked off the second wave of great Wu-Tang solo albums. Sticking pretty close to the formula that brought Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… its acclaim, Ghostface Killah’s debut effort featured a heavy street theme in a way only Pretty Toney could. The album features the Mary J. Blige assisted epic “All That I Got Is You,” perhaps the greatest R&B crossover track any member of Wu has ever done (arguable with “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I need to Get By” via Method Man). And mind you this feat was accomplished during a time Clan fans were hungry for nothing but that hardcore raw. His marrying of Wu-Tang philosophies and hood tales with very vulnerable topics (like reflecting on the death of his mother) made Ghost brilliant on this one. The fact that five Wu-Tang Clan albums had been released previous to Ironman and it still held its own is also nothing to ignore.

Forever

5. Wu-Tang Forever (1997)

Artist(s): Wu-Tang Clan

Essential Songs: “Triumph,” “It’s Yourz,” “Severe Punishment,” “Visionz,” “Older Gods”

As one of the most anticipated albums in the history of hip-hop music, Wu-Tang Forever didn’t disappoint, for the most part. After the four-year wait for a follow up group album Wu-Tang fans would be nourished well, and we mean well. The 27-track, two disc release was both a blessing and somewhat of a curse for those hungry for the Clan’s sophomore album. It featured classics like “Triumph” and “It’s Yourz” but also a couple skips (“Black Shampoo” comes to mind). Forever also became a recap for all previous releases as individual styles presented on albums after Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) were brought together and updated.

Supreme Clientele

6. Supreme Clientele (2000)

Artist(s): Ghostface Killah

Essential Songs: “Apollo Kids,” “Ghost Deini,” “Cherchez La Ghost,” “Mighty Healthy”

During a time when hip-hop was moving into its less lyrical and more commercial realm (you can thank The Hot Boys and No Limit for that), Supreme Clientele re-invigorated traditional rap fans. Ghostface Killah’s sophomore album is often argued as his best and there’s much merit to that. The LP also came at another important time. With other Wu-Tang solo albums drawing less than stellar acclaim (cough, Immobilarity, cough, cough) Ghost Deini’s follow up silenced all wary of the Clan’s continued position in hip-hop. Opposed to the crime-laden, fly Tommy Hilfiger raps of Ironman, Ghost’s lyrics transitioned to more of a reflective tone on Supreme Clientele. This switch conveyed his growth as an artist and really helped kick off the new millennium with a bang.

Return To The 36 Chambers

7. Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995)

Artist(s): Ol’ Dirty Bastard

Essential Songs: “Brooklyn Zoo,” “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” “Baby, C’mon”

RZA would decide (correctly) that Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version would be his second solo priority. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s untamed lyrics and wild style presented on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was well packaged and represented perfectly on his freshman album. The LP would also be the first to feature production by someone other than RZA. Wu classics like “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Brooklyn Zoo” quickly made the project a standout, successfully carrying the Clan into another consecutive year of flawless musical output. One of the most original emcees in the history of the genre, Dirty and his debut helped pave the way for others who were previously afraid to show hip-hop a different kind of personality.

Tical

8. Tical (1994)

Artist(s): Method Man

Essential Songs: “Bring the Pain,” P.L.O. Style,” “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I need to Get By,” “Release Yo’ Delf”

Method Man and the buzz he created for himself on Wu-Tang’s first album garnered him as the Clan’s most recognized emcee and thus, the honors of first out of the solo album gate. As one of the darker and grittier albums that would come to fruition during Wu’s tenure at the top, Tical proved to be solid start for what would follow. Although the album’s acclaim would fall short of other Clan debuts released shortly after, Meth’s first LP would ultimately be his best. Songs like “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I need to Get By” and “Bring the Pain” would find themselves high on the Billboard charts and continue earning Wu-Tang Clan more and more fans.

Fishscale

9. Fishscale (2006)

Artist(s): Ghostface Killah

Essential Songs: “Be Easy,” “Back Like That,” “Three Bricks”

Perhaps one of the greatest drug themed hip-hop albums of all time, Fishscale helped bring Ghost and his compadres back to an earlier time while incorporating an updated sound. The LP features verses from every member of Wu-Tang Clan as well as posthumous bars from Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Notorious B.I.G. and production from J Dilla. It also would be one of the last great stabs the Wu would give the world in album form. The tired tales of drug dealing and street life were reinvigorated to create a soundtrack indicative of Tony Starks, Starky Love, Iron Man and Pretty Toney. During a period when tall tees and Crunk music were the norm, the hard body offerings of Ghost’s fifth album was a nice counter.

6 Feet Deep

10. 6 Feet Deep (1994)

Artist(s): Gravediggaz

Essential Songs: “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide,” “1-800 Suicide,” “Diary of a Madman”

It’s hard to pinpoint who really brought the horrocore genre of hip-hop to the forefront. Kool Keith often credits himself as the creator of the genre dating back to his Ultramagnetic MCs days in the late 80s. Three 6 Mafia would later bring the genre to the world’s attention with some of their earliest work. As far as New York goes Gravediggaz became the first to bring the city’s hip-hop to a more graphic side. The Wu affiliate group’s debut, 6 Feet Deep would also be one of the earliest Clan LPs released and later be credited as a defining album in the horrocore realm. Interestingly, it was the first time Killah Priest was heard on wax after being reportedly beaten out by Masta Killa to become the ninth member of Wu-Tang Clan and having the chance to appear on 36 Chambers.

The W

11. The W (2000)

Artist(s): Wu-Tang Clan

Essential Songs: “Gravel Pit,” “Careful (Click, Click),” “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)”

2000 was a surprisingly good year for the Wu. After ’99 presented Clan fans with a few reasons for concern (i.e. albums that didn’t live up to the hype) the new millennium came to the rescue. Supreme Clientele would claim most of the year’s accolades but The W would prove to be a worthy continuation of Wu-Tang’s group catalog. The raw, rugged and more unscripted element of the Clan’s third album became a double-edged sword. Those hungrier for a return to outputs like Wu-Tang Forever or Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) got some semblance of the preceding classics. Holes in the album did present themselves though because of its density. Songs like “Gravel Pit” and “Careful (Click, Click)” served as a make up for others prompting a skip button press. While emceeing on The W fell off at times, production carried the album and did it well. RZA was still on his A-game after tirelessly cranking out LP releases for the last seven years, including his own.

The Pillage

12. The Pillage (1998)

Artist(s): Cappadonna

Essential Songs: “Supa Ninjaz,” “Run,” “Splish Splash,” “Dart Throwing”

Around the time The Pillage dropped everything Wu-Tang Clan was releasing turned to gold. Literally. But unlike offbeat albums carried by the fumes of a Wu namesake stamp, The Pillage was actually good and contained numerous underrated cuts. A Wu member born from his appearances on “Winter Warz” and “Ice Cream,” among others, Cappadonna and his debut effort showed that the Wu’s tenth member could mess around and compete with anyone in the Clan, if he brought the correct bars. Many consider Donna a poor man’s Ghostface and hey, being the lesser version to one of hip-hop music’s greatest emcees isn’t all that bad. The Pillage is a hodgepodge of great moments and “Wait, WTF did he just say?” lines. Make no mistake though, songs like “Dart Throwing” and “Run” touted Cappadonna’s ability on the LP. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for his entire catalog.

Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars

13. Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars (1997)

Artist(s): Killarmy

Essential Songs: “Wu-Renegades,” “Wake Up,” “Swinging Swords,” “Camouflage Ninjas”

Killarmy, along with Sunz of Man and Gravediggaz were one of stand out Wu-Tang affiliate groups. Silent Weapons was their Magnum Opus and would be received differently depending on who you ask. Wu heads for the most part loved the album, as it would serve as a nice dessert to the previously released Wu-Tang Forever album. Those not as familiar with the principles of the Clan and the nuanced military references that permeated Killarmy’s debut effort may have had a harder time understanding its hype. The album’s stand out record “Wake Up” provided enough evidence that the six-man group wasn’t just a lesser version of the nine-man super unit. The project was also proof that 4th Disciple could hold his own behind the boards as RZA assisted on only a couple of tracks.

Cuban Linx 2

14. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II (2009)

Artist(s): Raekwon

Essential Songs: “New Wu,” “Catalina,” “Walk Wit Me,” “Surgical Gloves,” “Black Mozart”

Cuban Linx II was perhaps more known for how long it took for it to finally drop than it was for the actual music. As much fun as one can poke about the pushbacks the sequel encountered, it was worth the wait. Originally announced in 2005 it would take four years to finally release. It’s rumored that the delay was in order to perfect and shape the album (short story) because lets face it, attempting to make the sequel to one of hip-hop’s greatest albums is a tall order, especially when doing it over two decades later. While not as great as the first, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II did prove to be in the same breath when it came to quality and story telling. The 22-track LP featured many usual suspects pertaining Raekwon and its overall composition showed that he still had it. The album’s production credits was a buffet of hip-hop greats. Everyone from Dr. Dre, RZA and J. Dilla to Marley Marl and Pete Rock had their hand in this one.

Heavy Mental

15. Heavy Mental (1998)

Artist(s): Killah Priest

Essential Songs: “One Step,” “If You Don’t Know,” “B.I.B.L.E.,” “Cross My Heart”

Killah Priest is to mythological rap what Raekwon is to the Mafioso genre. While barely missing out on being a member of the original nine-man group, Priest is no less nice on the mic and has perhaps had a better solo career than ones who did make the cut. Heavy Mental would be the dolo beginnings for Killah Priest and relay his knack for mind-bending theological references early. “One Step” would prove Priest had some crossover ability, both by ending up on the charts and retaining the lyricism that made him a standout Wu affiliate. The album also features a version of “B.I.B.L.E.” different from that on GZA’s Liquid Swords, which raises questions as to whose album the song was originally intended for. Regardless, Priest’s debut is solid from start to finish and would provide a great launching pad for his future successes as well.

No Said Date

16. No Said Date (2004)

Artist(s): Masta Killa

Essential Songs: “Grab the Mic,” “Last Drink,” “School,” “Old Man”

It would take over a decade for Masta Killa to get his shot at a debut album. As one always loyal to whatever decisions Wu-Tang Clan made, Killa’s patience was a must (perhaps why he titled the album the way he did). Remember, he wasn’t really an emcee long before he joined the Clan. No Said Date would finally drop in 2004 and become a delightful surprise for longtime Wu fans interested in seeing what the group’s ninth emcee could do on the solo tip. The album would also feature fellow Brooklyn native Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s final wax appearance before his death that same year. Masta Killa’s debut is very reminiscent of his own musical makeup. The rawness and straightforward narrative manifested on the LP took fans back to the sonics of previous Wu classics while presenting them with something of a different flavor.

Beneath The Surface

17. Beneath the Surface (1999)

Artist(s): GZA

Essential Songs: “Beneath the Surface,” “Publicity,” “Breaker, Breaker”

Both GZA and Raekwon would release follow-ups to their classic LPs in 1999. And unlike the train wreck that was the Chef’s sophomore effort, Beneath the Surface actually presented itself properly. Songs like “Publicity” and the album’s title track showed GZA’s growth as an emcee, touching on topics unspoken on Liquid Swords. It also marked Genius’ lyrical transition. The echoes of Shogun Assassin took a backseat to topics of space travel and astronomy, something GZA is still heavily influenced by (thus the title inspiration for his forthcoming Dark Matter album). Beneath the Surface was a drop off from his previous effort though because of its production. RZA wasn’t nearly as involved behind the boards for this one and it showed. Still, the album was a worthy listen and a solid follow up.

The Last Shall Be First

18. The Last Shall Be First (1998)

Artist(s): Sunz of Man

Essential Songs: “Natural High,” “Shining Star,” “Cold,” “Collaboration ’98,” “The Plan”

It’s hard to pinpoint which Wu-Tang affiliate album was the greatest. The combative and tactical force used through the lyrics of Killarmy made them heavily notable. Gravediggaz gave you that horrocore element. When it came to Sunz Of Man, it was their social/political and spiritual side that made them stand out. Most of this was a tribute to Killah Priest who would ironically be the most absent member from the group’s debut LP (appearing on only five songs). Even with this, The Last Shall Be First was a certified hit. By the late 90s Wu-Tang’s sound began to be stale for those wanting them to expand. Sunz took note of this and purposefully went outside of the box to present the audience a different type of show. By enlisting Wyclef Jean for the album it was evident that RZA’s influence alone wouldn’t be enough.

More Fish

19. More Fish (2006)

Artist(s): Ghostface Killah

Essential Songs: “Alex (Stolen Script),” “Grew Up Hard,” “Miguel Sanchez,” “Street Opera”

More Fish would be released just months after its predecessor. Many thought the project was a makeup of all the tracks that didn’t make Fishscale (hence the “more” designation). And even if that was the case it’s crazy because a lot of quality must’ve been left off. From songs like “Alex (Stolen Script)” to “Grew Up Hard” Ghostface Killah’s trademark storytelling and accompanying flow shined through on the LP. Ghost’s Theodore Unit would find more work on the album and shadow the Iron Man well. More Fish’s sequencing was inferior to the prior project but held its own when it came to lyrical content and production.

Uncontrolled Substance

20. Uncontrolled Substance (1999)

Artist(s): Inspectah Deck

Essential Songs: “9th Chamber,” “Uncontrolled Substance,”

Uncontrolled Substance is one of those albums that drives a divide though heavy Wu heads. While some think the project is solid, others believe it was a let down, particularly since Inspectah Deck proved to be one of the better lyricists in the Clan during the mid to late 90s. There is no doubt Deck lyrically brings it on his debut album. One of the biggest criticisms of the album is also pertinent when it comes to Deck himself. Lacking the charisma of a Method Man or Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the metaphorical mastery of a GZA, The Rebel INS and his freshman LP become bland at times. Still, as far as debuts go, Uncontrolled Substance was a solid one for the most part and would be accepted by fans and critics alike upon its release.

Bulletproof

21. Bulletproof Wallets (2001)

Artist(s): Ghostface Killah

Essential Songs: “Never Be the Same Again,” “Ghost Showers,” “Street Chemistry”

It would be hard to argue any single member of Wu-Tang had a better solo career than Ghostface Killah. From Ironman and Supreme Clientele to Fishscale and beyond, Ghost not only put out the highest volume of great albums but also the lowest amount of duds, only missing a few times. Bulletproof Wallets would prove to be another solid effort by Pretty Toney. And while the album wouldn’t sell to its acclaim, it was a good one. It showed Ghost a little out of character from both his previous solo work and appearances on group albums, taking on more of a party persona. Accompanying a few of the skits and interludes, tracks like “Ghost Showers” revealed Killah’s attempts to make a club record, something slightly new to fans of prior Ghost.

Honorable Mention: Nigga Please (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), Behind the Stained Glass (Killah Priest), Golden Arms Redemption (U-God), Shaolin vs Wu-Tang (Raekwon), The Pretty Toney Album (Ghostface Killah), The Swarm (Wu-Tang Killa Bees).

Photos via DiscogsUpNorthTrips

Related: Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow (Album Stream) | Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow

Previously: Interview: Prodigy & Boogz Boogetz’ Young Rollin’ Stoners Album showcases two Generations of Queens Hip-Hop | Interview: Theophilus London “Vibes” with Kanye West & Leon Ware for Sophomore LP | Made in Ohio: Stalley & Rashad on Ohio Culture and Music | Happy 75th Birthday Queensbridge: The 75 Greatest QB Rap Songs | Interview: Diamond D Recalls Fat Joe & Lord Finesse’s Early Days, Says He was Stunned when Big L Passed | Interview: Sir Michael Rocks Talks Solo Identity, Banco, and Favorite Miami Strip Clubs

Catch up on all NahRight interviews and features HERE.


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2 Responses to “To “A Better Tomorrow” and in Celebration of 21 Years: The 21 Greatest Wu-Tang Clan Albums”

  1. coolwhip100 Says:

    What? No “10 Bricks” under Essential Tracks for OBFCL 2? Error.

  2. Damian Says:

    + Moongod Allah “Ten tigers of kwangtung” , Cilvaringz “I”, Holocaust & Bue Sky Black Death, Bronze Nazareth “Great migrations” , Shabaz the Disciple ” Book of Shabaz”

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