“What are true keys to bein’ a ninja?” Estelle asks the question on “Chop Chop Ninja,” but Raekwon The Chef spends every bit of seventeen tracks serving up the answer for his fifth solo album, Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang. Originally meant to be a Wu-Tang album—minus RZA’s production—the project has been a long time coming, fully evolved into a Raekwon release, rife with appearances from Clansmen.
An album flooded with features typically suffers from a lack of individual identity but, like Sir Luscious Left Foot, Raekwon’s crew further defines him. That said, the Wu-Tang appearances are nothing spectacular. Method Man makes the most of his mic-time, flippantly flowing through “Every Soldier in the Hood” throwing in noticeable nods to classic Wu-tracks, but Ghostface and Inspectah Deck drop in on “Silver Rings” and “Chop Chop Ninja” with so-so results comparable to a crisp chest pass rather than an alley-oop.
On the positive side, Kwon didn’t cower to his comfort zone with collabs, forcing a few outsiders to keep up with a Shaolin vet. Lloyd Banks brought his ‘A’ game on “Last Trip to Scotland,” despite an unusually scraggly puberty voice, and Busta Rhymes closes out “Crane Style” with his patented lyrical lunacy. Still, the best collab on the album is “Masters of Our Fate,” in which Black Thought helps close out the album with his signature poetic prowess.
So most of the guests go in, but there’s still our gracious host to discuss. Raekwon’s flow remains incomparable, telling stories surpassing the script of many martial arts flicks. Every tale is laced with vivid violence and a warped understanding of the ninja way, and in true Wu-Tang fashion we get an old school Kung Fu soundtrack breaking through every song. Kwon’s voice gels with the music, and his mastery of his craft allows him to bring a wealth of stories to life without losing our attention, as evidenced on the Evidence-cocoted number “The Scroll.” Another heater, “Snake Pond,” serves as the best example, a story of brutal battles and inhibition-free sex is easily visible through composer Selasi’s music and Raekwon’s words.
But… there’s always a “but.” With the common compliments out of the way, a key flaw in Rae’s presence on this album is the lack there of. There is relatively little substance to the project and as many of the songs pass, they leave listeners impressed but unmoved. A track like “Ferry Boat Killaz,” full of brag and swag, serves no purpose and lacks the insight Raekwon is capable of at this point in his career. We’re left wondering how many different ways this guy can tell us he’s a fucking rogue assassin.
While custom production from the likes of Scram Jones, DJ Khalil and Sean C. & LV are refreshing, the flows are dope and the guests hold their own, but ultimately, the Staten Island showdown feels like an interlude on our way to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. 3. It is a pit stop that surpasses the entire catalogue of many others, but a pit stop nonetheless. Still, The Chef managed to serve us with a hearty appetizer as we wait for dinner to be served. Enjoy those mozzarella sticks.