My second-favorite album of the 1990s is unbreakable, shatterproof.
2. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)
From 1984-87, a sci-fi adventure cartoon adapted from a Japanese anime series became a hit in syndication. It told the story of five young pilots defending their planet from the armies of an evil alien king. When things got especially perilous, these soldiers would literally unite – their lion-shaped planes locked together to form a giant, sword-wielding robot called Voltron.
The nine members of the Staten Island rap crew known as the Wu-Tang Clan would have been teenagers when Voltron was on the air. And being the innately talented storytellers that they were, they absorbed the show’s messages about the power of togetherness, of how courage under fire can grow exponentially when it’s shared. When it came time for them to hole up in a tiny studio and knock out their debut album, they kept their egos in check. Even though the odds were against them ever getting another chance at fame like this, eight mega-talented rappers uniformly agreed to let their producer/bandleader RZA make the final decisions on whose verses made it in. If the results of these sessions achieved mere coherence, it would’ve been an achievement. But Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers is one of the most focused, balanced LPs in rap history. Its off-the-charts energy hits as hard as it does because of how expertly it’s been channeled. Every single outsized personality gets his moment in the sun, without one rhyme, sample, or snippet of kung-fu movie dialogue ever feeling extraneous. This wasn’t just the debut of a new artist. It was the invention of a myth. One album in, and Wu-Tang had slain the king.
In hindsight, ceding artistic control to RZA was the smartest thing these guys could’ve done. He was in the midst of developing a signature sound built on martial drums and sped-up soul samples, with just enough grit in the mix to make it sound like a rare find at the bottom of the bin. His productions ran the gamut from rugged to rollicking to rueful – and he had a cast of characters to suit any mood. So the confrontational, elephantine drums of “Bring Da Ruckus” sound like they were tailored bespoke for Ghostface Killah’s hyperactive, ultraviolent style. “Shame On A N—a,” with its catchy R&B horn breaks, is the ideal showcase for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s wild, oxygen-sucking wisecracks. And the wistful, Gladys Knight-sampling ballad “Can It Be All So Simple” gives Raekwon a rain-spattered backdrop that perfectly frames his gritty childhood reminiscences. It’s incredibly rare to encounter a debut album that covers such a wide swath of emotional territory.
Part of it was timing. These guys had been rapping all their lives, scribbling in notebooks, developing their characters, discovering their flows. And here they were, getting their shot, over some of the nastiest beats ever created. (This was technically RZA and GZA’s second shot; both of them had brief, pre-Wu solo careers under different names.) The energy in their voices is palpable. Which meant they could compare themselves to cocaine straight from Bolivia, or threaten to kill you while making a Family Feud reference, or dip into a couplet from Green Eggs and Ham, and it all would feel like it was shot straight from a cannon into your adrenal glands.
Once Enter the Wu-Tang established them as visionaries, the members of Wu-Tang would go on to create hours upon hours of legendary, boundary-pushing hip-hop, most of it on their own solo albums. But they never could reach the heights they achieved when they were young unknowns, hungry as hell and utterly in it together. “So when you see me on the real / Formin’ like Voltron / Remember I got deep like a Navy Seal,” warns Raekwon on “Shame on a N—a,” evoking that larger-than-life cartoon machine that ran exclusively on human bonds. It’s a perfect metaphor, one of many on this flawless, unflagging LP. Because when Wu-Tang Clan first formed, it was into a shape that has yet to be replicated.