On June 3, 1997, Wu-Tang Clan, one of the most iconic and influential acts in hip-hop history, released Wu-Tang Forever, the group's follow-up to their platinum debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The Wu had evolved from a gritty rhyme collective that once paid for a studio session with $300 in quarters to a well-oiled, multi-million dollar, industry-revolutionizing operation that would be a blueprint for many rapping entrepreneurs to follow. RZA's five-year plan guaranteed success and prosperity for all that fell in line with his order of operations, and Wu-Tang Clan had positioned themselves as standard-bearers for the no-frills style of hardcore East Coast rap that had become par for the course and helped steal the commercial spotlight back from the West Coast and put it back on the five boroughs.

In a revolutionary move, RZA would ink a contract for Wu-Tang Clan with Loud Records that stipulated that members of the group could sign record deals as solo artists with whatever label they pleased, putting in motion the first wave of Wu-Tang solo projects, all of which were commercially successful and helped establish key members of the group as stars individually. With Method Man's 1994 debut Tical and releases from Ol' Dirty Bastard (Return to the 36 Chambers), Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx), GZA (Liquid Swords), and Ghostface Killah (Ironman), the Wu-Tang Clan's string of gold and platinum-certified solo albums would only strengthen their power as a collective. The Clan capitalized on their popularity with their own clothing line, Wu-Wear, with their music videos becoming perfect vehicles for product placement as the Wu-Tang logo emblazoned on the gear was enough to entice rabid fans to purchase and sport the threads.

The Wu-Tang Clan's return as a full unit was highly anticipated among rap purists, but its release would be an exercise in patience. Following their own album releases, getting all nine members of the group into the studio at the same time to construct an album with their conflicting schedules and agendas would lead to multiple release date push-backs.

However, throughout 1996 and 1997, RZA would have Wu members convene at Oakwood Apartments in California, where the collective would reside while crafting what would ultimately become Wu-Tang Forever. Recorded at Ameraycan Studios, Wu-Tang Forever would be feature departures from what they'd done on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), most notably the personnel involved. After making appearances on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ghostface Killah's Ironman albums, Cappadonna would make his first appearances on a Wu-Tang album. An early member of Wu-Tang Clan, Cappadonna had been replaced by Method Man after Cappa's incarceration before the recording of Enter the Wu-Tang. Back within the fold, he appeared on five Wu-Tang Forever songs and solidified himself as the unofficial tenth member of the crew. Other artists outside of the Wu core that appeared on the ambitious LP are rapper Street Life and singer Tekitha, the latter of whom played a role similar to Blue Raspberry, who'd lent her voice to previous albums from the Wu. RZA also allowed protégés, True Master, and 4th Disciple, to contribute tracks to the album, with both multiple scoring placements and accounting for some impressive backdrops. However, executive producer RZA remained the unquestioned mastermind of what Wu-Tang Forever would ultimately become, using his skills as a communicator, creative, and motivator to delegate and oversee the manifestation of he and his disciples' second assault on hip-hop and the music industry as a whole.

The frenzy surrounding the Wu-Tang Clan's sophomore release was largely in part to listeners expecting the unexpected, with no one quite sure when the group would return and in what fashion. On February 11, 1997, the world got their first glimpse of what the crew had cooking in the oven with the release of Wu-Tang Forever's lead single "Triumph," a song that would become one of the definitive rap records of the decade. In stark contrast to many of the rap songs burning up the Billboard charts in 1996 and 1997, "Triumph" was devoid of a recognizable sample or catchy a hook. With Ol' Dirty Bastard contributing an unforgettable intro, the stage is set for the oft-overlooked Inspectah Deck to launch into one of the more recognizable verses in rap. Deck's opening salvo would earn lauds in The Source's "Hip-Hop Quotable" column, a distinction that would raise his profile and his stock as a featured artist in the wake of Wu-Tang Forever's release.

Accompanied by an epic music video directed by Hype Williams, "Triumph" would heighten the buzz for Wu-Tang Forever to a fever pitch as it arrived in June 1997, when it would shock the world and put the power and influence of The Wu on full display. Wu-Tang Forever would make a bigger splash upon its release than Enter the Wu-Tang had four years earlier. ...Forever locked up the No. 1 spot on the album chart with 612,000 copies sold in its first week of release.

"Reunited, double LP, world excited/Struck a match to the underground, industry ignited," GZA spits on the aptly titled "Reunited," which pairs him with Ol' Dirty Bastard, RZA, and Method Man, whom also attack violin-powered composition, complemented by Ms. Roxy, with fervor, resulting in a effort that isn't mind-blowing, but is serviceable to get the album off to a favorable start.

As GZA notes in his opening bar, Wu-Tang Forever is a double-disc album, a trend that was becoming standard for major acts in rap after megastars 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G., (who passed mere months before the release of Wu-Tang Forever), both helped popularize the concept. Members like U-God and Masta Killa were given minimal showcase on the group's debut, so the expanded format gave each rapper more time to shine. Even with the flood of double albums in late 90s hip-hop, Wu-Tang Forever could have been an ambitious failure given the multiple cooks in the kitchen. But the deeper you get into Wu-Tang Forever, it becomes obvious that the LP combines elements from each of the members' solo albums into a melting pot of organized confusion. "Reunited" may not be the tour de force expected as the album's intro, but the subsequent selection, "For Heavens Sake," compensates for that lack of punch, as the enlisted rhymers soldier over the pounding percussion, ominous horns, and a vocal sample. Asserting themselves as one of the best duos post-Starsky and Hutch on their respective solo LPs, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah find their cinematic verses sandwiched by a stanza from Method Man on "Cash Still Rules/Scary Hours," the latter of which also bats lead-off on the Inspectah Deck produced Visionz," which is yet another selection anchored by an electric showing by Ghostface Killah, whose increased presence on Wu-Tang Forever is comparable to the emergence of A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg, who grew by leaps and bounds between his own group's respective first two albums.

After becoming a breakout star following Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Ol' Dirty Bastard is largely absent from Wu-Tang Forever, but one of his few contributions, the hook on "As High as Wu-Tang Get," is essential and is a reminder of the oft-erratic rhymer's ability to steal the show whenever given the chance. Whereas Enter the Wu-Tang was more of a freewheeling showcase of the group's lyrical ability, Wu-Tang Forever focuses on sociopolitical matters. One of the more notable instances is the 4th Disciple-produced "A Better Tomorrow." Urging listeners to not "party your life away/Drink your life away/Smoke your life away/Fuck your life away" and to set a better example for future generations, The Wu then pays homage to rap pioneer T La Rock with "Itz Yourz," the first disc closer.

After allowing Poppa Wu to open up the first half of Wu-Tang Forever with a few sage words and jewels from his Five Percenter philosophy, RZA takes the onus on the second disc of the album, and uses the time to take a page out of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah by subliminally dissing peers who they feel have not been as original or true to the culture of hip-hop and its roots as they should. Calling out those he perceives as "trying to take hip-hop and make that shit R&B, rap and bullshit" and insisting that Wu-Tang is gonna bring back hip-hop "in the purest form," RZA's words address the elephant in the room that was the debate about what constitutes as "real hip-hop," a war that continues to waged 20 years after the fact, but one that is the underlying motivation behind the mission statement that is Wu-Tang Forever. The second disc of Wu-Tang Forever is the lesser portion of the album and is weighed down with a bit of filler, but also includes its fair share of gems, most notably "Impossible," which features guest vocals from Tekitha, over production by 4th Disciple and RZA, the latter of whom also appears on the track. U-God delivers a poignant string of couplets that are full of perspective, but the true highlight of the song is Ghostface Killah's visceral verse, as he witnesses one of his close comrades die in front of him, a stanza that is credited as one of the more powerful verses on a Wu-Tang Clan album to date, and closes the case for GFK being crowned as the most valuable player on Wu-Tang Forever, continuing his hot streak that was sparked with his performance on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx two years prior.

Other standouts from the second disc of Wu-Tang Forever include "The City," "Bells of War," and the Raekwon and Ghostface Killah duet "The M.G.M.," which picks up where the two left off on Ghost's Ironman a year prior and captures the pair spinning a tale of being ringside at a heavyweight boxing match in Las Vegas. While much of the filler on the second half of the album is tolerable, two selections that serve as blatant blemishes are the U-God solo cut "Black Shampoo" and the Tekitha solo "Second Coming," both of which are horrible enough to nearly erase any goodwill either built with their previous contributions to the album. However, Raekwon's commentary on "The Closing" helps relieve the bad taste left from those clunkers, reminding listeners of the good on Wu-Tang Forever that outweighs the occasional blunder.

Wu-Tang Forever was one of the biggest rap releases of 1997, selling over 4 million units and becoming the best-selling album of the group's career to date, as well as furthering the conversation over the course that rap music and the culture as a whole was headed towards at the time and who or what was to blame, if anything at all. Wu-Tang Clan's efforts would also net them a Grammy nomination for Rap Album of the Year at the awards show's 1998 ceremony, but in an ironic twist of fate, the album would lose out to Puff Daddy & the Family's No Way Out. It was a sign that, despite objections made by RZA and company throughout Wu-Tang Forever (against the glitz and glamour of record labels like Bad Boy Records), artists in the mold of Puffy and Ma$e weren't going anywhere anytime soon.

For many fans, Wu-Tang Forever would largely live up to the hype; but it wouldn't supplant Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) as the group's magnum opus and the album that will most succinctly defines their legacy as a group. Despite its misfires and indulgences, Wu-Tang Forever marks the crescendo in the career of one of the most important and cultural iconic acts that rap has ever produced.

Watch Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph" Video:

Watch Wu-Tang Clan's "It's Yourz" Video:

Watch Wu-Tang Clan's "Reunited" Video:

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