The Wu-Tang Clan is an empire. You know this, because between the occasional group album, the solo full-lengths, and the extracurricular activities, they’re always giving you a reminder. A remarkable thing about the Wu, though, is that they’ve largely kept their fundamental rawness intact, despite de facto leader RZA’s divisively progressive vision. That rawness doesn’t just show in Ghostface Killah’s recent anti-Action Bronson YouTuberant (“This fat, funky-ass nigga’s a fraud!”), though there is that. On the whole, the Wu is a persistent entity that keeps their fans’ needs in mind, and they’ve been working hard. Since last year’s group album, A Better Tomorrow, Ghostface Killah alone has released three albums: 36 Seasons, Sour Soul (with Toronto instrumental trio BadBadNotGood), and Twelve Reasons to Die II (with producer Adrian Younge). This spring, Raekwon finally came through with the alternately gleaming and grimy Fly International Luxurious Art.
Now, after making albums with the Wu, the offshoot project Wu-Massacre, and his How High partner Redman (not to mention his ever-expanding IMDb page), Method Manmounts a comeback with his first solo album since 2006’s 4:21… The Day After. Because it’s been so long since Meth’s last solo outing, The Meth Lab serves as a yardstick for measuring how the Wu has both grown and stayed grounded. It carries a purist East Coast ethos, but not in the sense that you might think. Having made friends with the likes of the A$AP Mob, it’s clear that Meth, 44, doesn’t loath today’s young rappers — he’s just faithful to the template the Wu established over 20 years ago. With few exceptions, The Meth Labis a bruiser, with crushing drums, heavy piano lines, and the same sense of imminent danger that’s been in Meth’s voice since the torture skit on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Over production from executive producer Hanz On, Ron Browz, Allah Mathematics, J57, and 4th Disciple, Meth spends The Meth Lab channeling the lyrical density of his ‘90s heyday and adding notes from his journey since then. It’s more than just his usual tough talk, though the tough talk is reliably clever: “I’m here to analyze your shooter like I’m Kenny Smith,” Meth raps on the micro-thumper “2 Minutes of Your Time”. Still, individual bars mean little compared to the depth of his entire approach. “Rappers don’t really ride, they piggyback/ I’d trade them all to have 2Pac and Biggie back,” he swears on that same song. That line and others like it are reminders that Meth — who, yes, knew both Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace while they were still alive — is a legend worth following for his wisdom. His sheer tenacity is a bonus.
The guest list here is roughly as long as Compton’s, and there’s a reason for that. On the intro, Meth announces that The Meth Lab was purposefully “done by Staten Island, madein Staten Island.” With the Island no longer the rap hotbed it once was, that would’ve been a huge leap of faith if he were interested in making a commercial album, which, of course, he’s not. That freedom allows him to comfortably integrate these rappers and singers into the album’s arc. Aside from lethargic exceptions like Mack Wilds’ hook on the reggae-influenced “50 Shots” (“Ladies at the show singing every hook, but they finna get they panties took”), these cameos usually snap into place. Particularly notable appearances come from Redman, Hanz On, and Streetlife on “Straight Gutta”, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck on “The Purple Tape”, and Hanz On again on “Symphony”.
Across the album’s 19 tracks, Meth’s nuanced rapping, the cohesive production, and the guest rappers’ willingness to be team players cohere into an affirmation for Meth’s fans. Ever since a flood in RZA’s basement studio hampered Meth’s Tical, the first post-36 Chambers Wu solo album, he’s been making up for lost time. Fortunately, The Meth Lab gets plenty of strength from his magnetic presence and unwavering ideals. “Wu-Tang is for the children/ Go get your child support on,” he raps on “2 Minutes of Your Time”. Seventeen years after Ol’ Dirty Bastard coined the “Wu-Tang is for the children” mantra at the Grammys, The Meth Lab is as likely as any recent Wu-affiliated album to hook a new generation of fans.