There are many, many reasons why I love rap music. One of those reasons, I have learned, is this: At a young and formative age, I had my mind blown by superhero comics. Many rappers — most of the best rappers — present themselves as flesh-and-blood superheroes. (In this, rappers are like action-movie stars or pro wrestlers, two other groups of people that similarly fascinate me.) The stories of rap music — the origins, the long-simmering feuds, the sudden world-changing moments, the crossover team-ups — mirror the stories of comic books. And the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, who also had their minds blown by superhero comics, have always understood this better than anybody else.
The turbulent, ever-evolving Wu-Tang story has been through a great many changes over the years, but in the past decade or so, it’s settled into a kind of stasis. All the living members of the Wu-Tang Clan are still making music, but all of them seem to realize that their best work is behind them. They have, at least for now, put aside their internecine squabbles and come together, however uneasily, as a whole. The last great Wu-Tang crackup was probably the compelling but depressing confusion around Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, the one-of-a-kind not-really-Wu-Tang album that Martin Shkreli bought for millions just as he was easing into his new role as public pariah. That was four years ago now.
If you go to a Wu-Tang show today, you will probably be able to rest secure in the idea that all the members of the group — or most of them, anyway — will make it to the stage. They probably won’t bark at each other mid-song. You probably won’t get your ass kicked. But the old electricity won’t crackle in the air, either. You’ll hear a bunch of songs that you love, that you’ve loved for decades, and you’ll go home happy. That’s a great place for Wu-Tang to be in 2019, especially since the Wu-Tang story has now moved on. These days, the members of the group are finding new ways to tell their intertwined stories.
A few months ago, Showtime aired Of Mics And Men, director Sacha Jenkins’ great four-part documentary about Wu-Tang. Of Mics And Men is full of fun stories and big personalities, and it’s notable for the ways in which the Wu-Tang guys speak forthrightly about past conflicts while still giving off the impression that they love each other. Functionally, the film works as an argument that Wu-Tang are an American artistic institution on the level of the Eagles, another group of chaotic popular-music heroes who got their own Showtime documentary series a few years earlier. I loved Of Mics And Men — binging it in a sleep-deprived blur and then spending days afterward with “Daytona 500″ on constant repeat. But Of Mics And Men may have just been the throat-clearing before Wu-Tang: An American Saga.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga is the new Hulu series about Wu-Tang — one where young actors play the roles of the different Clan members, telling the story of how the crew came into being in the first place. RZA co-created the show with Alex Tse, the man who wrote the not-bad 2018 Superfly remake, and the two of them wrote the entire show together. (Presumably, we have Tse to thank for my favorite thing about Superfly: the villainous drug gang who dress in all white and who call themselves Snow Patrol. That is the kind of thinking that really should lead to a Wu-Tang TV writing assignment.) Various other members of the group served as consulting producers. The first three episodes went up online last week, and there’s fourth up today. It’s really something.
Right now, the way I feel about Wu-Tang: An American Saga is a bit like how I felt about the first X-Men movie in 2000. It’s not perfect. Some of the casting is iffy. Some of the pacing seems off. Not all of the storytelling flourishes work. The balance that the show has to strike — legible for people who know nothing about Wu-Tang, deep enough to draw in the cultists — is near-impossible, and it often errs on either side. And yet I cannot believe this thing exists. It feels like someone scooped a vast chunk out of my teenage brain and threw it up onscreen. I’m surprised, and I’m delighted.
Everything about the new series is fascinating. Take, for example, the casting. The show’s nominal star is Ashton Sanders, the teenage hero of the middle third of Moonlight. Sanders plays the RZA as a terse, insular dreamer drawn to music even though as his fascination puts his family at risk. RZA’s brother Divine is a sharp, in-control drug dealer trying to bring RZA into that world, but RZA keeps fucking up, making dumb mistakes, losing focus. He’s a constant disappointment to Divine. (Divine reportedly did not consult in the making of the show, though he was invited. He still comes off better than just about anyone who did. I once spent a very strange evening with the real Divine, and based on what I saw that night, the actor Julian Elijah Martinez nails that character exactly.)
But the best-known actor in the cast is Shameik Moore, the guy who played Spider-Man in the best big-screen version of the Spider-Man story. Moore is a good-looking movie star, and yet he’s cast as Raekwon, easily the least good-looking member of Wu-Tang. Moore is great in the role. He slumps his shoulders, slurs his words, and flashes the gold on his teeth even when he’s going to sleep on a project rooftop. Like the real Raekwon, he can flash from music-based excitement to erratic menace in a heartbeat. And yet accepting this guy as Rae is still a whole lot to ask.
As Ghostface, Siddiq Saunderson is charming and garrulous, just like the real Ghost. But he hasn’t yet shown the larger-than-life intense-genius charisma that makes Ghost so special. (Maybe the real Ghost didn’t have that yet as a teenager. Maybe it’ll emerge as the show goes on.) The other members of the cast haven’t yet had much to do. The New York rap hardhead Dave East plays Method Man, but he hasn’t been in the show much yet. As Ol’ Dirty Bastard, TJ Atoms has mostly been comic relief (just like the real Dirty, really), and he’s been amazing this far. As of the end of the third episode, GZA has only just shown up. The other members of the group, including Joey Bada$$ as Inspectah Deck, haven’t yet appeared. Other non-rapping members of RZA’s family, including former Living Single star Erika Alexander as his mother, loom much larger.
At least in the early going, Wu-Tang: An American Saga is more of a crime story than a music one. All the principal characters are involved in the drug game in one way or another. They all want to do music, but none of them other than RZA consider it to be a serious pursuit. When Eric B and Rakim show up in Staten Island, it’s a huge deal, but it doesn’t lead to anything bigger for the group. (RZA, onstage at a rap battle at the same show, tries rapping from the point of view of a sperm and gets booed off. Dirty: “What you thought, this was science class?”) Plenty of things stand in the way of them coming together as a group, not the least of which is the fact that Raekwon is in a drug gang that’s making war on the rest of them.
The Wu-Tang Clan arrived on my radar in the early ’90s with their fully-formed mythology already intact, so it’s striking to see them depicted as lost kids. RZA’s myopic focus on his music gets Divine stuck in jail. Ghostface carries on a secret affair with RZA and Divine’s sister. Method Man is an assistant manager at a tourist gift shop who will not allow any street malarky in his store.
Most strikingly, Raekwon and Ghostface keep trying to kill each other. Raekwon shoots up Ghosts’s apartment and then burns down RZA’s trap house while he knows RZA is inside. At one point, he also considers beating Ghostface to death with a shovel. To me, this is a bit like learning that Harry Potter and Ron Weasley were jamming fireplace pokers in each other’s eyes as toddlers.
The Wu-Tang show is only possible because Straight Outta Compton came out first, making a ton of money and winning awards. And like Straight Outta Compton before it, Wu-Tang: An American Saga is an authorized-biography version of an iconic group’s story. We’re only seeing what the members of the group want us to see, and we don’t know what’s true and what’s not. Still, it doesn’t feel like hagiography. It feels like RZA, a master storyteller in one form, trying to use what he knows to tell his story in another. Thus far, it’s working.
Like plenty of comic-book movies before it, the Wu-Tang show is full of Easter-egg nods to longtime fans. Ghostface, for instance, explains Iron Man comic-book plotlines to his brothers. RZA throws on a record that we’ll recognize as the source of an iconic sample. Raekwon cooks crack and calls himself the chef. But we’re still so early in the story. None of the characters are using their rap names yet. None of the characters other than GZA have discovered 5% Nation Islam. RZA constantly watches kung-fu movies, but he hasn’t built a belief system out of them yet. And none of the characters has yet accepted RZA as a leader, least of all RZA himself.
At this rate, Wu-Tang won’t even be Wu-Tang yet by the end of the first season. That is slow, deliberate storytelling, and I hope it gets a chance to play itself out. Hell, I hope the show stays on long enough to get to the Martin Shkreli saga. (Suggested Shkreli casting: The kid who played Joffrey on Game Of Thrones.) Disney now owns Hulu, and I have no idea whether that company will want to continue funding the Wu-Tang televisual universe. But I hope it does. Better than anyone, Disney knows the power of seeing our heroes onscreen.
1. NLE Choppa & BlocBoy JB – “ChopBloc Part 2″
BlocBoy JB hasn’t even been in my life for a year and a half yet, and yet he already comes off here like a grizzled veteran, a pioneer being granted the favor of rapping next to an exploding young star. NLE Choppa is still 16. He can dance like a goofball while rapping about shooting you in the face, and he can seem seriously dedicated to both pursuits. If it were possible to invest in rapper figures, I would advise you to bet your entire mortgage on NLE Choppa.
2. Skyzoo & Pete Rock – “Eastern Conference All Stars” (Feat. Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny The Butcher, & Elzhi)
An underground head-stomper posse cut that doubles as a staggering display of pure-rapping talent.
3. Future – “600 Days No Sleep” (Feat. Young Thug)
After all these years, Future is still throwing incredible songs up as YouTube loosies and saying inexplicable things like “I was born with coyote teeth.” What a hero.
4. Chansa – “No Hook Pt. 2″
Chansa comes from the Minneapolis crew V.I.C.E. Boys, and that’s really all I know about him. But the bass on this thing hits like a grenade to the gut, and he handles it. Take fucking notes.
5. Mauley G – “For The Gang (Remix)” (Feat. G Herbo & J Green)
It’s been amazing to see Chicago drill go from a regional scene to an interconnected global web of regional scenes. Mauley G, for instance, is from Brooklyn, and he’s part of the exploding drill scene there. J Green is from Florida, part of YNW Melly’s crew. Chicago original G Herbo is 23 years old, and he’s already put enough time into drill that he gets to play sage elder. Together, they have made a bracing, exciting street-rap record.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Dwight Howard looks like Bobby Digital now pic.twitter.com/rgzKHxZLxT
— Joey Devine (@JoeyDevine) September 5, 2019