After a nine year silence from unleashing solo material one of The Wu Tang Clan’s most enigmatic and multi-layered personalities, forty-four year old Staten Island, New York representative Clifford Smith, also known as Method Man (who released his definitive mood-setter Tical in 1994 and Tical 2000: Judgment Day in 1998, a bar he has been trying to hit in his individual efforts since, and goes by the aliases of Johnny Blaze, Tical, Mef and various other monikers), has unleashed a sonic killer bee sting in the form of his fifth solo album, cleverly titled The Meth Lab. Accompanied by production from Ron Browz, Hanz On, Allah Mathematics, 4th Disciple and J57, the album is meant to silence those who said Wu Tang was “washed up” or “past their prime” ( Meth himself was defending his own microphone skills when they came into question with the flat reception of his third album, 2004’s Tical 0: The Prequel, and 2006’s 421:The Day After) with the resounding critical, commercial and fan oriented thud that was the legendary group’s early December of 2014 release A Better Tomorrow.
The nineteen track opus that is The Meth Lab entails all of the necessary attributes of a Wu release: grimy poetry, meticulously detailed narratives of street life (as only The Wu themselves can orchestrate) with touches of M-e-t-h-o-d Man(as he addressed himself in the ninth track of Wu Tang’s groundbreaking debut from 1993 Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers) and his signature endlessly quotable wordplay (as in the head-nodding, vigorous and grimy Raekwon and Inspectah Deck featured, who both deliver astonishingly sixteen bar rhymes, twelfth track, “The Purple Tape”, where Johnny Blaze quips: “Veterans is dyin’ and used up/ Let’s see if they can hang/ I’m already tyin’ the noose up”) and effortless maneuvering of humor and utter seriousness (sometimes in the same song) without distracting, only adding, to the overall variety of each instant Hip Hop classic in which he makes these swift transitions.
After a comical twenty one second “Intro”, the track immediately afterwards, which shares the name of the album, leads us immediately into a skit where a man screams, “This is my domicile and I will not be harassed!” With the symbol of the meth lab clearly stated as Method Man’s representation of the addictive rap tunes he cooks up in the studio in the “Intro”, we see the representative nature he is establishing even clearer with the home mentioned being his stance in the rap game. This becomes a thesis statement for the record as a whole.
It is a defiant, combative attitude that Smith and LP and its various producers carry throughout every bar, every stinging note in this sixty-five minute opus of funk and brilliant lyricism, that starts with the crisp melodic orchestration of this commencing ditty. This is made all the more stalwart by Streetlife and producer Hanz On’s (who also join Mef to equally ear-pleasing effect on the aggressive and vibrant fourth track, “Bang Zoom”) intelligent, sly and thoughtful contributions to “The Meth Lab”, which is carried to the thumping, laid-back and menacing production of “So Staten”, a sadly conventional turn from Hue Hurf and bars of experience and wit from Tical himself. Both songs are searing winners, triumphant anthems and exceptionally smart ways to open and finish the sonic material outside of the “Intro” and “Outro”.
Redman always brings out the best in Method Man. This was evident on the pair’s two collaborative albums, the enjoyable lyrical opuses Blackout, from 1999, and Blackout 2, from 2009 and will hopefully be carried when the duo releases Blackout 3, which is slated for release later this year. On what is sadly their only pairing on The Meth Lab, “Straight Gutta”, their companionship and likability shines as bright as their deft verbal exchanges on the microphone along with the imaginative, and extraordinarily Wu Tang sounding, song fabrication turned in on this third track. As usual, Redman does seem to come out the lyrical winner, but every time they go neck and neck it is a reason to get excited and with another exemplary collection of bars from Hans On, “Straight Gutta” becomes an album highlight.
Hanz On and Streetlife frequent many of the guest spots on The Meth Lab. Their presence is always welcome and it never seems excessive. Hanz On presents a late in the song spoken word bit on the one minute and sixteen second intro “The Pledge” which hilariously turns the National Anthem on its head and Streetlife gives us another smart gem of a rhyme. The rousing sample used in the background of Hanz On, Streetlife and Method Man’s “Symphony”, which successfully mirrors the title in the creative way it utilizes so many instrumental sounds to create such a mesmerizing explosion of sound that presents the idea suggested by the song title remarkably, is an incredible fusion of rhyme skills and exceptional invention.
Driven by the sound of rain in its beginning moments, which turns to another classic example of the production found herein, Hanz on and Streetlife reunite again on the three minute and thirty six second sixth track, “Another Winter” and the results are as powerful, introspective and representative of the unfiltered Hip Hop present throughout the 1990’s when Wu Tang was first beginning.
Streetlife lends his cerebral, largely socially conscience rhymes to a bulk of the guest spots on The Meth Lab and the results are all the more magnificent because of it. “50 Shots”, also featuring satisfactory turns from Mack Wilds and Cory Gunz, allows Method Man and Streetlife to slow down their flow to the low-key bang concocted for this infectious fifth tune in The Meth Lab’s song list.
“What you Getting’ Into?”, track fifteen, follows up the feel of “50 Shots” in content and overall feel, though it pulsates with a gritty appeal that makes Method Man and Streetlife’s vocals all the more potent. It is a shame Donny Cash is featured on the aforementioned track and his verse is comparatively dim (if not wholly unlistenable).
On “Intelligent Meth”, the thirteenth song, Streetlife displays that he deserves the limelight he gets so often on this album by holding his own against the brainy, verbally brawny and cleverly constructed rhyme schemes present in Masta Killa’s guest spot on this track. Although the aforementioned track is hindered by a juvenile, inflectionless and almost comical turn on the microphone from iNteLL, Method Man steals the show with a sixteen bar rhyme that is essentially one play on words after another, and an extended metaphor, which begins with the witty, attention-getting lines: “I’m still shadow boxin’/ Lungs need oxygen/This is an ice breaker/ I need bubble gum/ What’s poppin?/ I might need Amoxicillin/ The kid is sick”. This is made all the more of a home-run with the phenomenal production on this song, which is so vibrant it is as if it designed distinctly to come to life when replayed through your speakers.
Hanz On is present without the assistance of Streetlife on the Uncle Murda featured and certified Wu banger, “Worldwide”, the vibrant Crunk appeal of the two minute and thirty-one second Carlton Fisk showcased, “Soundcheck”, as well as “Rain All Day”, the seventeenth tune. Content-wise “Rain all Day” is your usual bout of being ‘hated on’ and vowing to “never change” (as Tical states in the beginning of his furiously creative verse, which opens the song). The pounding drive of the song is basic but the jingle’s other featured artist, Dro Pesci, provides largely uninspired rhymes which don’t reflect a reflection of the thought he put into his clever name. Still, it is purely a Wu track and continues on the electro-current of energy surging throughout.
The lyrical cameos extend to Cardi, Eazy Get Right and Freaky Marziano’s amateurish bars on the rather forgettable, but far from awful recycling of the tired, and far too materialistic for a Method Man tune, “Dreams of that Rolls Royce” and “Waking up in a new Bugatti” subject matter so prevalent in mainstream rap, “Lifestyles”, which is the low point of the LP. Despite this, it gives us some jovial banter in its final moments which mirrors the similar skits on Wu Tang’s debut album Enter the Wu- Tang: 36 Chambers splendidly.
Guided by a haunting piano loop on the tenth track, “Water” (featuring an unremarkable, especially when compared to Mef himself, cameo from Chedda Bang) Meth’s tales of drug selling turning to violence become all the more powerful and introspective. Chedda Bang makes an obvious effort but he is rendered even more ineffectual with Meth spitting witty phrases like “Who gassed you up and threw a match?” in the gripping narrative he conceives on this record.
Method Man gives himself few chances to deliver without the help of fellow rappers but when he does it is all the more startling. Track seven, “Two Minutes of Your Time”, continues the calm cool found in “50 Shots” and “What you Getting’ Into?” by giving us an undisturbed rhyme fest as only Tical himself could do. Sadly, it is the only example of Mef as the lone wolf on a song present in this entire album. The aforementioned intro and the amusing twenty-one second “Outro”, track nineteen, are the only other brief buts where we get a glimpse of the Wu member running solo. These three bits are refreshing because of this, and despite the high number of guests it never seems excessive because most of the guest spots are so strong, but when he announces his sixth album, Crystal Meth (which will be unveiled in 2016) we can’t help but hope we get more Johnny Blaze and less of everyone else.
The verbal swordplay is still inctedibly strong with Method Man, his charismatic and engaging personality are as likable as resent now as always, and his skills are sharp and remarkably on point throughout the entirety of The Meth Lab. Avoiding clichés at nearly every turn, with the exception of the deplorably materialistic refrain of “Lifestyles”, Smith sets up the best songs in the first ten tracks of the album with noticeably differing levels of vigor but, always high-caliber lyricism keeping the LP moving swift as a ninja’s star. Though most of the second half is comparatively underwhelming because of the reality that the best material comes immediately to the listener, The Meth Lab successfully proves that Wu Tang Clan is still as much of a legend as they have been since they first came onto the musical scene twenty-two years ago (a reminder that comes to us in various forms throughout a high number of the refrains in The Meth Lab and which are usually wrapped up in Method Man’s trademark slogan: “Wu Tang is for the kids), and their lyrics are as strong as when they first came onto the scene in 1993, and that, by giving us one of the best albums of the year, Method Man still is much deserving of his status as one of the best emcees to ever bless a microphone.